Families Divided

The Trump administration's “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which led to the separation of children from adults who crossed the border illegally, has fueled a national outcry. Sign up for our ongoing coverage. Send story ideas to tips@texastribune.org.

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Southwest Key Programs Inc., the nonprofit that runs the state's largest operation taking in immigrant children separated from their parents, is considering partnering with Brownsville Independent School District to send teachers and counselors to some of its Brownsville shelters.

Southwest Key officials held a conference call Monday with Texas Education Agency officials and Brownsville ISD educators to start running through the details of the potential partnership, the day after The Dallas Morning News reported the nonprofit was also considering partnering with Promesa Public Schools, a charter network it founded.

The details of the potential arrangements have not yet been finalized. The federal government hires private contractors to run its shelters and detention centers, leaving it up to them to decide how to educate kids, within the bounds of specific regulations from the Office of Refugee Resettlement under the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

"Southwest Key decides which entity it would work with: one, or both, or none," said Salvador Cavazos, Southwest Key's vice president for education services.

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The Office of Refugee Resettlement requires the contracting companies to assess students' educational needs within 72 hours of their arrival and to provide them with at least six hours of structured education Monday through Friday throughout the entire year in several basic academic areas.

The nonprofit, which is currently using a converted Walmart as a Brownsville shelter for more than 1,500 children, has been flagged by the state for hundreds of violations in the last three years, according to state health inspectors. Southwest Key spokespeople say the company immediately worked to correct those issues.

The current educational model at Southwest Key facilities is "proprietary," Cavazos said, refusing to give more details. But he said he believes the shelter's students would benefit from potential partnerships with Promesa Public Schools and Brownsville ISD, both of which have proposed sending their teachers into shelters. "We're looking to see if the model that we have can be enhanced with this partnership. We believe that it can be," he said.

Promesa Public Schools, formerly called East Austin College Prep, is a separate nonprofit created by Southwest Key that is currently enrolling students for a new campus in Brownsville this fall. It submitted a proposal to educate kids at one of Southwest Key's shelters, which include four in Brownsville and seven total in Cameron County, said Promesa Public Schools Superintendent Jaime Huerta.

Both Promesa Public Schools and Brownsville ISD could receive additional state funding for educating these students.

"We would treat it as though we're enrolling the kids," said Brownsville ISD Superintendent Esperanza Zendejas. "We would use [our teachers] to start, and of course hire more teachers as needed." Zendejas said she discussed potential models for the program with the TEA and Southwest Key in Monday's phone call.

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Through a memorandum of understanding, the public school and charter districts would provide services such as counseling, special education, bilingual education and general education following state curriculum standards and using state-adopted textbooks, Cavazos said.

He said he would expect Promesa and Brownsville ISD, as public entities, to have to follow specific state reporting guidelines.

But the TEA does not expect to play a direct role in the process. "Local school districts may choose to voluntarily provide services. However, such an arrangement would have to be worked out directly with federal officials," said Lauren Callahan, TEA spokesperson.

The Texas Tribune's reporting on the Families Divided project is supported by the Pulitzer Center, which will also help bring discussions on this important topic to schools and universities in Texas and across the United States through its K-12 and Campus Consortium networks.

She said TEA staff joined the conference call to answer questions Southwest Key representatives had about the proposal.

The Texas State Teachers Association earlier this month called on Gov. Greg Abbott and state-appointed Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to develop a plan for providing education services to immigrant students.

“We don’t know how long these children will be in Texas, but as long as they are here, the state of Texas has a moral obligation to educate them,” said Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria in a statement.

Zendejas reached out to the TEA last week to offer the district's services for migrants temporarily in shelters and to ask the agency to intervene to ensure students were receiving necessary services. She told the Tribune Tuesday that she would like to be able to start educating students as soon as possible.

"Hopefully, we would be able to provide services at the same time as we would be providing services for our students — or sooner," she said.

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Disclosure: The Texas State Teachers Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.