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With Uncertainty, Schools Prepare for New Arrivals

Many unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America remain in Texas, and public school administrators face the challenge of providing an education for them.

On June 24, 2014, volunteers gather at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, where the Rio Grande Valley Catholic Charities have a makeshift shelter to help handle the surge of immigrants who have crossed into the U.S. in recent weeks.

Federal officials along the border have scrambled in the last few months to house and care for tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America crossing the border into the United States.

With many of those children remaining in Texas, public school administrators face the challenge of providing an education for them when schools open later this month. Though the first day of classes is only weeks away, education officials say Texas school districts have not been told how many youths they will need to enroll, complicating efforts to prepare for their arrival.

“I think the message from the point of view of the school districts is that they know how to do this. They can serve these kids,” David Anderson, a lawyer with the Texas Education Agency, said of school administrators during a legislative hearing on Tuesday. “But they need to know the numbers ahead of time.”

When law enforcement officials detain unaccompanied minors who have crossed the border illegally, they have 72 hours to place them in a program within the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. While there, the children typically stay in one of about 100 short-term facilities set up by the federal government. The average stay is about 35 days. During that time, federal case workers attempt to track down relatives or other caregivers, like foster parents, to sponsor the children as they go through the legal system. Once they are placed with sponsors, they can go to public schools in their communities.

“The front end about where do you place these kids is going to be one of the real shocks to the system in September and coming months as kids enroll in school,” said Margie McHugh, the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy. “Trying to find their prior academic records and do assessments so they can be appropriately placed is in and of itself a herculean effort for local schools, and it’s going to require local school districts to be very fast on their feet.”

Since October, the Department of Homeland Security has referred about 52,000 minors to the unaccompanied alien children program, a spokesman said. About 96 percent remain in the United States as their legal status is determined. Since January, about 4,200 of the 30,000 children placed with sponsors have settled in Texas — more than in any other state.

It could cost the state up to $9,200 for each child who stays for the entire school year, Anderson said Tuesday.

But districts will not know how many migrant children they will serve until the school year begins. Because Texas enrollment is growing by about 80,000 students each year, Anderson said, most districts plan for additional children. Depending on a district’s size and the number of new students, additional staff, like bilingually certified teachers, may be needed, he said.

“We just don’t know those numbers,” he said. “We don’t know how many are in custody of the federal government. School districts will be enrolling students over the next three weeks, and we’ll either be surprised or not.”

Annette Garcia, a spokeswoman for the state education service center that serves school districts in several counties on the border, said there had not been much discussion among the districts about how to handle an increase in immigrant children.

“I think it’s still a wait-and-see approach to see where we are,” she said. “Will the children remain here. Will they be sent to other parts of the state, other parts of the country for processing? It is still in the we-don’t-know stages.”

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