FIVE POINTS, Calif.—It’s 7:50 on a hot, dry August morning when the buses rumble past a barren field—normally filled with broccoli this time of year—and creak to a stop in front of a flat-topped school, dust blooming up from under their wheels.
Children spill out, the older ones eager to greet familiar teachers. Parents and shy kindergartners congregate around the superintendent and the principal, Baldomero (“Baldo”) Hernandez, who pats shoulders and shakes hands, bending down to welcome the smallest students, like a pastor whose flock has finally returned.
It’s the first day of school at Westside Elementary and Hernandez counts fewer kids than ever climbing off the buses. The buzz of “¿Buenos días?” and “¿Cómo estás?” breaks the yawning stillness that has settled in this stretch of dusty farming country in the San Joaquin Valley. The 27,000-square-mile region stretches from Sacramento to Bakersfield and lies within the larger Central Valley, the epicenter of California’s four-year drought.
If the drought persists, Hernandez knows that some of his students—mostly poor, Hispanic children whose immigrant parents work the land—won’t stay through the end of the year. Many of the youngest ones, he worries, won’t be around to graduate from eighth grade and go on to a nearby feeder high school. As crops dry up, families are forced to move in search of jobs and housing. Families who do choose to stay double up in cramped bedrooms or sleep on couches in relatives’ homes, praying for rain and a return to work.