In a Migrant Shelter Classroom, ‘It’s Always Like the First Day of School’

In a Migrant Shelter Classroom, ‘It’s Always Like the First Day of School’


Originally published by The New York Times

Felicia Baez teaches English as a second language at a shelter in South Florida where anywhere from 30 to 100 migrant children in federal custody live at one time. Most stay about two months, but some leave after only a few days.

“It’s always like the first day of school,” Ms. Baez said of the turnover at the shelter, His House Children’s Home, in the suburb of Miami Gardens. And the wide range of academic ability among her students — some haven’t been in a classroom in years, while others graduated from high school in their home countries — means she is constantly making adjustments.

These are just some of the challenges of educating the thousands of migrant children now housed in youth shelters and family detention centers across the country.

Federal law requires that all children on American soil receive a free public education, regardless of their immigration status. As the Trump administration expands the number of people detained at the border, shelters and detention facilities are ramping up their roles as makeshift schools, teaching English and civics classes, offering cooking lessons and setting up field trips to art museums.

But according to lawyers and educators with firsthand knowledge of the child detention system, the education offered inside the facilities is uneven and, for some children, starkly inadequate.

Teachers at the schools are sometimes not state-certified as teachers, according to these accounts. Some shelter instructors cannot communicate effectively in Spanish, and in other cases the curriculum is so limited and classes are so wide-ranging in age groups that students seem bored and disengaged.

Daniela Marisol, a 16-year-old migrant from Honduras, has been held at a series of shelters since August. She has not been able to fully participate in classes because she is partly deaf and has not received hearing aids, said Holly Cooper, a lawyer representing Daniela and other migrant children in a class-action suit against the Trump administration.

Leecia Welch, another lawyer for the plaintiffs, said children held at the Shiloh Treatment Center in Manvel, Tex., had been so heavily dosed with psychiatric drugs, purportedly to treat such ailments as depression and anxiety, that they fell asleep at classroom desks for hours at a time.

“You can only imagine the children surrounding them, how that impacts their education,” she said. The management at Shiloh declined to comment about its education programs.

At the largest migrant youth shelter in the country — a former Walmart in Brownsville, Tex., where the nonprofit Southwest Key Programs houses and educates 1,500 boys aged 10 to 17 — officials made it a point to show off the facility’s classrooms on a media tour in June.

Parts of the shelter resembled a typical school: brightly lit, white-walled rooms with white boards and rows of desks, and long hallways decorated with elaborate murals. One hallway displayed a giant construction paper cutout of a tree — an illustration of the three branches of government. Part of the curriculum at the shelter at the time focused on American civics and government, to coincide with the Fourth of July holiday, but there seemed to be a permanent emphasis on American patriotism and geography.

One wall in the cafeteria showed a map of the country, with the outlines of the states in bold colors. Elsewhere, the walls were emblazoned with images and quotations in Spanish and English from American presidents, from Lincoln to Trump.

The Southwest Key officials on the tour were proud of the shelter’s educational focus. But there are more than 100 facilities across the country where migrant children are detained — some run by nonprofits such as Southwest Key, others by private prison companies and government agencies — and the overall quality of the education they provide largely remains a mystery because much of what happens in the shelters is rarely seen by the public.

At Berks County Residential Center, an ICE facility in Pennsylvania, there are two classrooms, one for children aged 2 to 11 and another for children 12 to 18, according to Eleanor Acer, of the nonprofit Human Rights First. Ms. Acer, who has visited the center several times, said that the wide age span left the older children in each group bored, and that much of the instruction was done through computers and worksheets.

She added that some teachers were unable to communicate effectively in Spanish, and that classes cycle through the curriculum every two weeks, meaning students who stay longer repeat the same material.

“The impression is that they are not really taught much of anything,” Ms. Acer said.

Adrian Smith, a spokesman for ICE, said that teachers at Berks are either certified in English as a second language or working toward such a certification. Children are grouped across age ranges, he said in a written statement, because of the “varying academic abilities of students.”

In general, federal immigration officials say that their contracted facilities are complying with federal requirements to provide at least five hours a day of instruction at facilities overseen by ICE and six hours a day at shelters operated by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Mark Weber, a spokesman for the department, said he could not comment on the cases of individual children detained in the agency’s shelters. Since 2002, the department has provided migrant children with “quality and age-appropriate care and a speedy and safe release to a suitable sponsor,” he said in an email.

The Times reached out to several shelter contractors to discuss their education services, but many declined to comment, including Shiloh Treatment Center and two of the biggest providers, Southwest Key and BCFS.

Should the Trump administration succeed in its attempts to hold migrant parents and children for longer periods of time, rather than releasing them as their cases make their way through the immigration courts, it will create more pressure on the schools within these facilities, and perhaps require them to provide more sophisticated services.

“The right thing to do is to get the kids out quicker,” said Bob Carey, who served under President Barack Obama as the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the health department agency that administers the migrant shelters. Educators, he added, have to weigh their desire to help detained children against the knowledge that detention itself could have a detrimental impact on children’s academic growth and emotional health.

“If you’re a social worker or educator, you have professional ethical standards,” Mr. Carey said. “Now you’re party to a process, seeing children traumatized by your own government.”

A 1997 agreement between the federal government and advocates for immigrant children, known as the Flores settlement, specifies what education should look like for children in detention: instruction in the English language, science, math, social studies, reading, writing and physical education.

According to Health and Human Services guidelines, all residents of the children’s shelters, most of which are managed by independent social service agencies, should receive an educational assessment within 72 hours of arriving, and have access to schooling that takes into account their “linguistic ability” as well as “cultural diversity and sensitivity.”

ICE standards say children held at family detention centers should have a curriculum and state-certified teachers essentially identical to those at a regular public school. The standards say children should be assessed for disabilities and have access to translation services.

Advocates for migrant children say these requirements are not consistently met. Yet some who work in the system say they are proud of what they are able to accomplish, given the many hurdles. One such person, who asked not to be identified because the government has discouraged public comments, said systems are in place to ensure migrant youths receive at least six hours of instruction per day, with real-time, detailed case logs for each child. Any child’s missed instruction time, such as for a medical issue, must be cataloged and justified.

At St. Peter-St. Joseph Children’s Home in San Antonio, migrant students are assessed for special educational needs and rotate through seven different classrooms, receiving instruction in all the major academic subjects, said Reynaldo Acosta, vice president of programs at the shelter. They have had guest lessons on cooking and aviation, and took a field trip to a local bakery. They leave the program with the academic transcript and identification paperwork necessary to enroll in public school.

The shelter is affiliated with Catholic Charities, which contracts with the federal government, but the school is managed by the University of Texas Charter School system. All the teachers are fluent in Spanish, according to Mr. Acosta. They teach both the migrant children and, in separate classes, children who are in the custody of the State of Texas. Many organizations housing detained migrant children also work with children in state foster care systems.

In South Florida, the schools in two shelters that house migrant children are managed by the local public school system — an atypical arrangement. One of the shelters is His House Children’s Home, where Ms. Baez teaches. The Miami-Dade County school district receives state funding to educate the detained students, and the teachers and counselors at the shelters are state certified, said Alberto Carvalho, the Miami-Dade superintendent.

Ms. Baez said that as of early June, when she left for summer vacation, all her students had crossed the border as unaccompanied minors; none were among those forcibly separated by immigration authorities from their parents.

She takes her students on several field trips each year, to museums, the aquarium and the zoo.

And despite the challenges of teaching there, most teachers at the home considered it one of the best jobs they had ever had, she said: “The kids are very responsive, very glad to be in school learning and very eager to learn English.”

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