Texas won't pay to educate migrant kids in shelters. Now two charter schools are scrambling.

State education officials did not seem to be aware the two public schools were located in migrant shelters, despite approving their applications.

Immigrants who turned themselves in to border patrol agents after illegally crossing the border wait to be transported for processing. Texas says it will no longer fund the education of children who end up in federally-funded migrant shelters. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

If you ask Trinity Charter School's superintendent, Bokenkamp and New Hope are not so different from the average public school.

Walk in and you'll see colorful artwork on the walls. Certified teachers lead small classrooms, paying extra attention to students who need more assistance. Kids, many who don't speak English, arrive on their first day, nervous about their new environments.

"They are enrolled in our schools just like any other public charter school," said Superintendent Kellie Ragland.

But to Texas and the federal government, they're no ordinary public schools.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

That's because the two charter schools are located in federally-funded migrant shelters, educating children who come to Texas alone or who are separated from their parents at the border. And as of last Friday, Texas has decided not to fund them.

Trinity Charter School — a privately managed, publicly funded charter school district — got the state's permission in 2006 to run Bokenkamp, a K-8 campus in Corpus Christi, and in 2016 to run New Hope, a campus for seventh- and eighth-graders in McAllen. It operates these schools in shelters managed by Upbring, which has received $19.5 million from the federal government this budget year to house and care for unaccompanied migrant children in shelters or transitional foster care.

Trinity budgeted for about $500,000 in state money to educate those children in 2016-17.

"The federal government is anticipating an increase in the number of unaccompanied minors and has requested that the New Hope facility be prepared to serve more students," Trinity Charter School officials wrote to the Texas Education Agency in a 2016 application to open the New Hope campus. "Trinity Charter School will provide the educational services to the students at the facility."

Exterior of Upbring New Hope, a government-funded migrant youth shelter in McAllen, on Sept. 4, 2018. Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

When asked earlier this summer, TEA officials did not seem to be aware they had been funding schools in migrant shelters for years, despite having approved the applications. "It is our understanding that students attending are not in federal custody," said TEA spokesperson Lauren Callahan in a June 26 email. "As such, TEA would have full jurisdiction on educational operations on these campuses."

After The Texas Tribune provided Callahan with evidence to the contrary, she responded: "If Trinity Charter is now providing educational services for students still in federal custody, the responsibility of meeting their educational needs remains solely with the federal government."

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The confusion is representative of the country's convoluted operation for processing children who enter the United States illegally, involving a tangled web of federal and state agencies with limited clarity about their responsibilities.

Last week, after months of vague statements, the TEA sent a letter to all superintendents ending what it called "unallowable double funding," using state funding to educate kids living in migrant shelters, which are already funded by the federal government. It also said school districts cannot count kids in shelters as their students in applications for state money.

A few traditional school districts on the border had been partnering with Southwest Key, one of the companies that operates shelters for migrant children, by providing teachers, counselors and classroom space. Harlingen ISD used $309,000 in state funding last year for its partnership at a Southwest Key shelter, providing two of three educational staffers, including the only teacher, as well as a building with two classrooms.

After the state cut the financial cord, their superintendents angrily announced plans to re-evaluate their partnerships.

But what will happen to Trinity Charter School's campuses, which are entirely funded by the state?

Coming back to the bad news after a long weekend, Upbring and Trinity Charter School officials locked themselves in meetings Tuesday to talk through potential solutions.

By late Wednesday, Upbring officials decided to ask the federal government to reimburse them for educational costs previously covered by the state and to consider a public fundraising campaign "to offset the decrease in TEA dollars," said spokesperson Angela Nazworth. "Upbring is committed to ensuring the educational programming at our [federal] shelters provides the children in our care the academic resources necessary to help them obtain future success."

TEA officials plan to meet with the charter's representatives to answer their specific questions on this issue. "Responses to some of your questions can't be provided until after we have had an opportunity to visit directly with the charter," Callahan told the Tribune Wednesday.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

"Structured education"

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.

In 2006, it chose Upbring (formerly known as Lutheran Social Services of the South), one of Texas' largest providers for foster care and adoption, to run Bokenkamp Children's Shelter for children often fleeing violence and instability in their home countries. Upbring already had experience running residential treatment centers, which provide kids therapy for substance abuse or severe mental illness.

Members of Upbring, along with community members, had created a separate nonprofit to run a school district, Trinity Charter School, in order to educate the kids in the residential treatment centers. The charter district opened a campus at at the Bokenkamp shelter in 2006.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement requires private contractors 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 year round in several basic academic areas.

For several years, after Bokenkamp's numbers dwindled to 22 in 2009, Trinity Charter School closed the campus and Upbring provided a private school in the shelter instead.

First lady Melania Trump and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar (left) listen during a roundtable meeting at Upbring's New Hope Children's Center in McAllen on June 21, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

But then in 2014, the number of children making the treacherous solo journey from Central America, through Mexico and across the border into Texas surged, prompting Trinity Charter School to ask the state for an emergency waiver to reopen Bokenkamp and increase the maximum enrollment allowed from 400 to 600 students. They also asked for money.

"Our current contracts do not cover all of the costs for the children placed in our care by ORR," they wrote to the state. "Because the federal government does not currently fund course materials our teachers are limited to free teaching resources for their curriculum."

Expanding its scope in 2016, Trinity Charter School opened New Hope, another school for unaccompanied children in federal custody, this time in a former nursing home in McAllen. Upbring doesn't have a perfect record: its shelters have accumulated 37 citations for violating state standards for kids over the past three years, including for delaying medical care to a child complaining of pain. In a statement Wednesday, Nazworth said Upbring has worked to "make the corrections within the required timeframe" and put protocols in place to prevent problems from reoccurring.

Still, Upbring garnered national attention in June when First Lady Melania Trump paid a surprise visit to the New Hope shelter, amid the controversy over the Trump administration's now-ended "zero tolerance" policy that led to the separation of hundreds of children from their parents, many of whom are yet to be united.

"A lot of socialization that happens"

The children at Bokenkamp and New Hope go to school in classrooms within their shelters, grouped by their educational needs. For many students, Spanish is their second language after indigenous languages or dialects. And most are terrified, having left families and friends behind countries or oceans away, without knowing what they can expect to encounter.

"When these students first arrive, they have had a lot of instability and a lot of uncertainty about what is happening and what is going on around them," said Ragland, the superintendent.

"Most of them have never touched a computer. They're very unfamiliar with just the general education process. There's a lot of socialization that happens."

The TEA considers Bokenkamp and New Hope "alternative education" campuses, serving students at risk of dropping out, and does not give them annual ratings. Trinity Charter School educates students in shelters during the regular academic year, and Upbring fills in the gaps during school vacations, in line with federal requirements for year-round education.

Ragland stressed the value of the schools' teachers, who are all certified in English as a second language and their subject areas, and trained in how to help students who have experienced trauma. Bokenkamp has 10 full-time school staff, while New Hope has four, and both share three paraprofessionals, who support teachers in the classrooms.

Despite the 154 miles separating them, both campuses share a principal, Hilda Vega, who is also the director of bilingual instruction, according to the website.

On Tuesday, 56 kids were being housed at the New Hope Children's Shelter and 109 were at Bokenkamp Children's Shelter. Weeks from now, those numbers could plummet. Many children stay for just a month or two before they are reunited with a family member or placed with a foster family.

The unpredictability in enrollment makes the shelter schools hard to run — especially in a state funding system where money is tied directly to student attendance.

"With our population, and kids coming in and out, our revenue stream can change anywhere from a half million to a million dollar swing every six-week period," said Brittany Perkins, chief operating officer at Trinity Charter School.

"We try to budget as conservatively as we can to make sure we're minimizing the risk when the numbers start to dwindle."

The schools' budgets are especially small when compared to Trinity Charter School's seven others, making up just 6 percent of the $7.8 million budget in 2016-17.

Even with their funding source in jeopardy, Ragland and Perkins are adamant that they are running typical public schools.

"We're a TEA school," Ragland said. Right now, it seems, the state does not agree.

Teo Armus contributed reporting.

Disclosure: Upbring 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.