English-Language Learners Explainer

Who’s Teaching the Children Crossing the U.S. Border? Answers to 6 Questions

By Dalia Faheid — June 07, 2021 9 min read
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria along with other officials are among the group of elected officials who were given a tour of the temporary youth shelter at the San Diego Convention Center on March 27, 2021. The girls will be separated in sleeping areas that will host up to 50-girls per pod. The temporary shelter will max out about 1450 girls.
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Since 2014, more than 250,000 unaccompanied children have arrived at the southwestern border of the United States and the influx has risen in recent months.

As the Biden administration struggles to accommodate the burgeoning numbers, the amount of time these children spend in U.S. care lengthens, raising questions about what is happening with their education status.

Under the Biden administration, unaccompanied children who cross the border are being let into the country instead of turned away as they were during the Trump administration. While federal authorities are more quickly transferring children out of U.S. Customs and Protection agency detention centers that lack beds, showers or educational programs, overcrowding at longer-term shelters run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services could mean lower quality education.

As of May 2, there were about 22,264 unaccompanied children in the custody of HHS, which is charged with their care. Seventy-two percent of the children are over 14, 68 percent are boys, and most come from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

Here are answers to some basic questions about the educational status of the children who cross the U.S.-Mexico border without legal documents. Some of these children will eventually find their way to public school systems around the country.

How long are children staying in U.S.-run detention facilities?

The Biden administration has decreased the amount of time children spend in border patrol custody, which is supposed to transfer minors from facilities that do not provide education services to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours.

More than 5,000 children were in border patrol custody in March, the majority staying over the 72-hour legal limit. As of May 13, that number had fallen to 455 children in border patrol custody, and none stayed longer than 72 hours, according to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’s testimony last month to senators.

But the alleviated overcrowding in the CBP facilities has meant that more children are in HHS care, where they are provided with educational programs. As of May 24, there were more than 18,000 children in the agency’s care.

Who is responsible for providing education services to unaccompanied children?

While in HHS custody, unaccompanied children are not enrolled in local schools, but they can get on-site educational services.

Under the law, unaccompanied children apprehended by CBP officers are required to be turned over within 72 hours to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is charged with caring for minors who arrive at the border without a parent or guardian. The children are then placed in emergency intake shelters across the country where they can be processed and either released to a sponsor or transferred to an appropriate state-licensed facility for longer-term care. At these sites intended for temporary stays, educational services are encouraged but not required.

When children are moved to state-licensed facilities for longer-term stays, however, the Office of Refugee Resettlement is required to offer them on-site educational services. Health and Human Services operates approximately 200 state-licensed facilities in 22 states where children stay until they are released to sponsors, on average within 35 days.

Unaccompanied children are later released from HHS custody to a sponsor—usually a parent, relative, or family friend—who cares for them while their immigration cases proceed through the system. While living with a sponsor, the children have a right under federal law to enroll in public elementary and secondary schools in their local communities, joining the more than 840,000 immigrant students already enrolled in U.S. schools.
But sponsors or relatives often find it hard to negotiate the public school system, said Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, director of the Sidewalk School, which offers schooling to children at a border refugee camp.

“Once you cross [the border], there’s no support, you’re kind of just left to figure things out on your own,” she said.

What are the learning requirements for the children while they are in U.S. care?

According to ORR guidance, the state-licensed facilities must provide:

  • an initial educational assessment within 72 hours of admission to determine the child’s level of academic development, literacy, and linguistic abilities;
  • six hours of instruction per day, Monday through Friday, in a structured classroom environment, throughout the calendar year;
  • teaching in basic subject areas, including science, social studies, mathematics, reading, writing, physical education, and English-language development;
  • academic reports and progress notes for every student; educational and classroom materials that reflect the children’s cultural background and are sensitive to cultural differences;
  • materials in all native languages represented at the facility;
  • curricula that include remedial education, after-school tutoring, and opportunities for academic advancement, such as special projects, independent studies, and preparation for the General Educational Development (GED) test, which provides certification equivalent to the high school diploma.

While the shelters must comply with these standards, the quality of educational services they provide has often been inadequate because of the facility’s size, staff expertise, a lack of standardized curricula, or the degree of support from the local school district and federal government resources, according to studies and advocates.

Some shelters navigate lack of physical spaces or learning due to overcrowding by organizing schooling into shifts or increasing student-teacher ratios.

Educational services in HHS shelters typically do not receive state or local funding because they are contracted to nonprofits and private organizations and are not legally required to adhere to state educational standards and guidelines and the state is not involved in monitoring them. In some cases, they are contracted to the local government, meaning the school board will be involved. Students don’t take state standardized assessments.

“Many shelters struggle to find the time and resources that are required to adequately develop curricula and implement creative educational services,” according to a 2019 report by the publication Forced Migration Review.

HHS in 2019 temporarily stopped reimbursing shelters across the country for teachers’ pay, leaving it up to the various nonprofit and private organizations that the agency contracts for the shelters to cover the cost of teachers and supplies. Advocates and contractors said that move violates a legal settlement stemming from the 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Reno v. Flores, which requires the federal government to provide education to migrant children in its care.


What educational challenges do unaccompanied children face?

Children who cross the border are often already behind in their education due to factors such as being on the move, not being able to afford education, not having legal status or having to work, so they require specialized attention, according to Estefania Rebellon, a co-founder of Yes We Can World Foundation, the first independent bilingual school program for migrant children at the border.

“You can’t just sit this kid into a regular classroom and expect them to do well or want to participate or even want to engage in the class,” Rebellon said. “You need to start from a human perspective and work with them to just stabilize them before going into an academic setting.”

Another challenge is providing safe spaces that meet the social-emotional needs of the unaccompanied children, who have experienced significant trauma and instability.

“A lot of these children have seen events such as murder, domestic violence, kidnapping,” Rebellon said. “These are children who left their homes, who know they’re not going back, and who are now in spaces with strangers that they don’t know.”

How do shelter educators try to meet children’s individual educational needs?


The required educational assessment conducted by shelter staff determines the academic level of the child and any particular needs he or she may have.

Also, “care providers must have the cultural awareness and systems in place to support the cultural identity and needs of each” unaccompanied child, according to an ORR email sent in response to Education Week’s questions. “Additionally, care providers must make every effort possible to provide comprehensive services and literature in the native language of each child; provide on-site staff or interpreters as needed; and allow [these children] to communicate in their preferred language when they choose.”

Developing curricula to meet the diverse educational needs of unaccompanied children in shelters, however, is a challenge. Classrooms host students of varying ages, languages, educational backgrounds, trauma responses, behavioral issues and interest in education staying for varying periods of time.

Staff at the state-licensed shelters modify local educational standards to develop curricula based on the average length of stay for an unaccompanied child at the facility. Children are separated into class groups based on their academic development, level of literacy, and linguistic ability rather than by chronological age. They provide remedial education and after-school tutoring as needed. To assess children’s progress, academic reports and progress notes are included in the child’s case file which is either sent to another facility if they’re transferred or released to the child when they’re discharged.

Where do teachers for unaccompanied children come from?

Teachers are recruited by the nonprofits, local school districts, or private organizations that HHS contracts to run the shelters.

A qualified teacher may not always be available to complete the initial educational assessment, according to the publication Forced Migration Review, meaning that a lesser-trained staff member would complete it. Another challenge is that candidates who do not meet all the ideal criteria, such as being bilingual, certified to teach English-language learners, and knowledgeable about unaccompanied children, may be offered positions to prevent a gap in educational services to children, especially in often-overcrowded facilities.

That can be problematic, said Rebellon.“Without having the experience of working with this demographic, I think it’s very difficult for somebody to just use a previous curriculum to teach to someone that is in an entirely different situation,” she said.

Sometimes, the teachers hired come from the local public school system. In a recent example, HHS designated the San Diego Convention Center an emergency intake site for unaccompanied children on March 27, and Juvenile Court and Community Schools as well as San Diego County Office of Education teachers have been recruited to work at the site.

The San Diego County office now provides an educational program for the 879 children ages 5-12 at the facility, who are expected to stay between 14 and 30 days. The county office created a printed curriculum in English and Spanish that was delivered to the convention center. The center’s program doesn’t have traditional hours, so teachers are able to work outside regular hours.

“All children in California, regardless of immigration status, have a constitutional right to education,” San Diego County Superintendent of Schools Paul Gothold said in a press release announcing the teacher recruitment initiative. “We also have a moral obligation to ensure a bright future for our children.”

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