An Immokalee High School graduate begins as a freshman at Harvard University on a full-ride scholarship this fall as the first student from that high school in the predominantly farmworker community to be accepted into the Ivy League university as an undergrad. But, her story is just one example of the community’s recent upward education trend.
Jennyfer Gerrero Torres comes from a family of immigrants. Her mother is from Honduras, and her absent father is from El Salvador.
When her parents split up, she was brought, as an infant, to Immokalee. Its name means “my home” in the Mikasuki Indian language, and for Gerrero Torres, it’s the only one she’s ever known. That will change when she moves to Massachusetts later this summer to attend Harvard.
“For most of my life, I’ve lived in Immokalee, and I’d actually never left the state of Florida until I went to visit the university in person,” Gerrero Torres said.
Immokalee is home to more than 20,000 full-time residents, though its population nearly doubles during harvest season. Gerrero Torres’ mother is one of the many farmworkers, while her stepfather has worked in construction for as long as she can remember.
“They never received a formal education in the countries that they’re from,” Gerrero Torres said. “My mother only received a sixth grade education, and my stepfather only went up to second grade.”
Her parents are not alone. The American Community Survey from the US Census revealed 60 percent of adults in Immokalee had less than a high school education in 2015.
Gerrero Torres, though, is part of a turnaround. After dually enrolling at Florida Gulf Coast University her final two years, she earned enough credits to get her associate’s degree and boost her grade point average to a 5.5. She was Immokalee High’s valedictorian and the school’s first student to be accepted to Harvard as an undergrad.
“The people that really pushed me to achieve more, to always try my best in school, were really my teachers,” Gerrero Torres said. “They’re amazing.”
In the last decade, Immokalee High School has seen a rise from a 60-percent graduation rate in 2007 to 91 percent in 2016.
Collier County Public Schools began calculating high school graduation rates to match the federal formula in 2012. They no longer counted special and GED-based diplomas or students who transferred, died or dropped out in the rate.
Immokalee High’s rate of standard diploma graduates has risen by more than 10 percent in the last four years. Both county and school administration officials say it has less to do with the calculation change and more to do with the hiring of superintendent Kamela Patton.
The executive director of secondary programs, Leslie Ricciardelli, says Patton made lower-performing students her main focus since her first day in 2011, through the use of “data dialogues.” These deep dives into each school’s data intend to help administrators understand the areas needing improvement and distribute resources accordingly.
"It’s obviously proven to work because the number of state assessments that we meet or exceed the state in performance and the graduation rate all have skyrocketed since she’s been here," Ricciardelli said.
Jesus Galan dropped out of Immokalee High School after dealing with the death of his first child.
Back when he attended, less than two-thirds of its students were crossing that stage at the end. Below is a chart of Immokalee High School's graduation rate compared with Collier County obtained using data from the Collier County Public School District.
“A lot of the teachers look at the star students instead of looking at the lowest student and, instead of helping the lowest student, end up helping more the star student,” Galan said.
Galan, now a father of three, said it’s on parents, even more so than teachers, to keep students in school. His father, a farmworker for more than 40 years, used his experience to keep Galan’s siblings in line.
“When they didn’t want to go to school, my dad would take them to the fields and say, ‘This is going to be the end result if you don’t finish your school,’” Galan said. “And, they didn’t like the fields, so they went back to school.”
Galan is now a student at Immokalee Technical College or iTECH. It’s right across the street from Immokalee High School and is the town’s sole postsecondary option. Full disclosure, my mother is a workforce education advisor there.
It offers dual enrollment to high school students, which iTECH student 23-year-old Isaiah Rosales said he wished was around earlier.
“Sometimes, these kids learn differently than what the teacher might teach like, and it frustrates the kid,” Rosales said. “And, the kid just gives up. I think, sometimes, when they see a kid not being receptive to what they’re trying to teach them, it’s easy to be like, ‘Oh, well, they’ve given up. I’m going to give up.’”
Rosales admitted he started to get lazy around sophomore year, and by junior year, he began hanging out with the wrong crowd.
“They were basically focused on partying and just things like that, you know, things that did not matter,” Rosales said.
Rosales said associating with those kind of students is what kept him from attending a big state school after graduation. He did attend Florida SouthWestern State College, though, before he had to drop out to help support his parents and little sister. It was while working multiple part-time jobs that he realized his true passion for helping others, so he enrolled in iTECH’s Licensed Practical Nursing program.
Audrey Moss has been at Immokalee High for 34 years — first as a teacher and then as the head of the guidance department. She said the administration has worked to keep students, like Rosales and Galan, from feeling neglected in recent years.
“We have watch lists, and we monitor the students,” Moss said. “So, we try not to let those that are that level of kid slip through the cracks. And, there are more opportunities for the students to do different things, such as the early admissions that Jennyfer did.”
Immokalee High School’s 2017 graduation rate has yet to be reported, but Moss said she anticipates it to be, once again, in the 90-percent range — for the third consecutive year.