May is always a special month for students at RCMA Wimauma Academy and RCMA Bethel Child Development Center. It's when about 300 children, nearly all of Mexican descent, celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
At this year's festivities, the academy's K-6 students and the center's preschoolers donned mostly handmade traditional garb and paraded around the grounds at Bethel Mission on U.S. 301, where both schools are located. Festive Mexican music blared from a truck leading the entourage.
The holiday parade, which commemorates the Mexican army's 1862 victory at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War, does more than simply tie the children to their roots. It's about maintaining strong parent-child relationships.
"The relationship parents have with their children is critical to their education," said Bill Coats, a spokesman for Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which provides child care and early education services to children of migrant farm workers and rural, low-income families throughout.
"We find ourselves pushing their Mexican heritage because many of our parents are so intent on assimilating their children, they're actually willing to let them stop speaking Spanish altogether. We don't like that."
Helping kids maintain their Spanish language skills is important for several reasons.
Creating a language barrier impedes kids' ability to communicate with their parents. It cripples the family dynamic. And being bilingual is especially helpful when children enter the workforce as adults.
Early on, RCMA leaders recognized the value working with farm-worker families and fostering the parent-child bond, Coats said. That's why school officials at both Bethel Child Development Center and RCMA Wimauma Academy look for ways to keep students connected to their heritage and, through it, build strong familial bonds.
That includes a number of initiatives:
"In the past, it was 'get here, learn English and assimilate,'" said Maria Teresa Jimenez, RCMA's charter schools director. "Today, there is much more diversity across the country. We want our children to be comfortable in their own skin, to embrace their heritage but function effectively in any environment."
The result, said Jimenez, is students who have a higher sense of self-worth and self- confidence and parents more inclined to provide encouragement and keep their kids in school.
"When you feel good about who you are, you will become an awesome, highly successful adult," she said.
To an extent, RCMA does things a larger school, with a larger and broader base of students, wouldn't be able to.
"It's a unique program," said Jenna Hodges, supervisor of charter schools for Hillsborough County Public Schools. "Because it's a small school with a large organization behind it, [the academy] can devote additional resources and place stronger emphasis on parental involvement in their children's education."
Its mission, which focuses on a Hispanic population, includes educating the entire family, Hodges said.
"RCMA has its own governing board and can provide curriculum based on the specific needs of that population," she said.
Olga Perez, the migrant advocate at Lennard High School, sees the benefit of RCMA's practices. Many high school students with Mexican parents know English quite well and still speak Spanish at home, she said. But they no longer know how to read or write in Spanish.
"Keeping them tied to their language and culture harbors a strong sense of identity for students," she said. "Since we have full immersion in our schools, having them take Spanish classes ensures they also learn to read and write the language. That's the only way to ensure they truly become bilingual."
"I think it's awesome RCMA does that," said Georgina Rivera Singletary, supervisor of migrant programs for the Hillsborough County School District and a former migrant farm worker.
"From my own experience, we didn't allow English to be spoken at home," she said. "It helped my kids retain their heritage language, and now they are fully bilingual. That makes them much more marketable when they go to seek jobs."
RCMA Wimauma Academy will be able to build upon the foundation it currently provides students when its new middle school, the RCMA Leadership Academy, opens in August.