WATSONVILLE, Calif. — A lifetime of moving has taught Claudia Morales to start packing early, because like many 13-year-olds, her room "is always a mess."
The hoodies go in her suitcase, but as usual, all her partially completed schoolwork ends up in the trash. Just a week later, Claudia has new notebooks, along with new textbooks, and three bulging suitcases to start unpacking 200 miles away.
She does this every year. Twice.
This December, thousands of migrant farmworker children are making their annual trek to new schools in California, but they do so also at other times throughout the country. During growing season, their parents rent low-cost housing in federally subsidized labor camps, but state rules mandate that families move at least 50 miles away when the camps close for the winter.
"We have a life we need to live," she said. "I like both places, but when I grow up I expect to have good work and buy a house where we can stay permanently."
Claudia gets straight As at one school, somewhat lower grades at her other. But as years pass and coursework gets more complex, the odds rise against her. Eventually, about 90 percent of kids living in seasonal worker housing drop out of school, according to the San Jose-based nonprofit human rights organization Human Agenda.
At Aptos Junior High School, where Claudia started eighth grade this fall, migrant counselor Juan Alcantar said he has a handful of students who are flunking every class, biding their months before their move, sometimes as far away as Mexico.
"They see themselves as visitors on this campus," he said. "They figure, 'I come from a labor camp next to a dump site. I don't belong, and I'm leaving soon.'"
A state lawmaker this year tried to change the 50-mile rule, but the bill died in committee.
For Claudia, the cycle continues. Her labor camp is less than an hour drive south of Silicon Valley, where in the past 50 years the region has transitioned from lush orchards and vegetable fields to a global technology hub.
"This is a largely invisible population, but we all should care a whole lot about this," said Stanford University Professor Amado Padilla, who studies immigration. "Kids who don't finish school end up being a burden on society. On the flip side, kids who are well-educated end up being the caregivers both personally and economically of the older generation."
California has 24 seasonal farmworker centers, 1,900 apartments all together, run by the state's Office of Migrant Housing. The program dates to the 1930s, when the federal government opened migrant labor camps for Dust Bowl refugees.
The idea behind the 50-mile rule was to provide seasonal housing for families who come to an area to work only during picking season.
State officials say that despite a sharp drop-off in the past decade of migrating farmworker families, the seasonal housing should not be occupied year-round and hence unavailable for the next season's pickers and planters.
"We are not aware of members of families being in jams or having a problem with having to move away," said Guerdon Stuckey, an assistant deputy director at the state Department of Housing and Community Development. He said some families move from crop to crop and are not looking for permanent housing.
"We've met several of these farmworkers, and on the contrary, they're not only aware of the many affordable housing options, they enjoy this lifestyle," he said.
Claudia's family lives in a complex of 50 flimsy — Styrofoam and plywood — prefabricated duplexes built in the late 1960s. Her bedroom window overlooks a small valley, a county jail and a dump. The rent of about $350 a month is still a lot for Claudia's dad Juan Morales, who made $9.50 an hour planting strawberry root stocks in November.
Morales — in a large straw hat — joked with nearby planters, all bent at the waist, as loud music blared over the field. But he got serious when asked if Claudia, her brother Jose, 7, and sister Maria, 16, will ever join him. Legally they can start picking at 13.
"I want them to get a good education, I don't want them working here," he said.
"They take the pain for us," Claudia said of her parents' labors.
Claudia started school each fall riding a school bus with other labor camp kids to Aptos Junior High, a buzzing school splashed with murals in a largely affluent community. After Thanksgiving, she moved to Palo Verde Union School in Tulare, a newer campus in a low-income community.
In the labor camp, Claudia knew just about everybody. "I can walk around with my eyes closed." In Tulare, her family shares one room of a mobile home in a gang-ridden neighborhood. Claudia does not go out at night, but she likes it there. She has her own bed near the television where they watch her beloved telenovelas, Spanish language soap operas.
Claudia started physics this fall in her science class. In September, they formed teams to build a roller coaster. She told her teacher she'd be gone before the due date and so she sat that one out, a lucky break, she said.
In Tulare, the science class was studying chemistry.
"Who remembers what a molecule is?" asked teacher Kevin Meneses on her first day. "If I have two or more of a different type of atom stuck together, what do I have?"
Hands shot up. Students called out. Claudia was still.
"I just listen, I write it down, but I don't raise my hand because I have no idea what they're asking about," she said, shrugging. "I just sit there."