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Southwest Key Shelter Problems Have Consequences For Arizona School District

Teacher Angela Patton gave the prompt for a writing assignment to a combined class of fifth- and sixth-graders: imagine finding a cave inside a tree and detail what’s inside.

“Just be as creative and descriptive as you possibly can,” she told them.

This is a Monday morning at Esperanza Prep Tempe, which is not your typical school. There are small class sizes for kids with individual learning plans.

“It’s more than just an education,” she said. “It is a family setting. It’s providing additional resources — dental, medical (and) clothing.”

Patton has only been teaching at Esperanza Prep for about three weeks. But she’s worried she could lose her job before Thanksgiving.

“It’s kind of scary,” she said. 

Esperanza Prep is in the Maricopa County Regional School District, which has an agreement to teach undocumented immigrant kids at facilities run by Southwest Key Programs.

The closure of two shelters has the District expecting a $1.2 million budget reduction, said Steve Watson, Maricopa County School superintendent. 

“We were responsible for a lot of kids in those Southwest Key facilities,” he said. “And every day a kid is in class, it’s equal to a certain amount of money.”

The District has evaluated all teachers, administrators and support staff, Watson said. Layoffs are imminent. 

“It’s a pretty miserable experience.”

One Southwest Key shelter closed due to allegations of physical abuse by staff. The second closure is preceded by Southwest Key having missed a deadline tied to increased state oversight.

The District based the $1.2 million budget reduction on loss of state money for 240 students at the closing shelters. But, it still had about 200 more kids in other Southwest Key facilities. With a statewide freeze on more placements, children leaving those shelters to live with family or sponsors could lead to an even bigger budget loss.

“’Cause they’re worried and I can’t give them a definite answer and I have to tell them I’m worried too. I don’t know about my job security necessarily.” —Instructional Leader/Principal Irina Lutz

“Economies of scale: the more students we have, the more services we can provide to all students,” Watson said.

The District targets at-risk students for its services. An example is called Continued Hope, which has three locations. It’s a program that offers a chance to catch up on classes and earn a high school diploma. A small group of students meet in a computer lab in the basement of a Mesa Public Library. After a morning of state testing, the teacher leads a discussion about jobs and being reliable. One of her main points is getting and keeping the kinds of jobs the students want takes habits that start in school.

“We have a lot of kids that might be the first in their family to graduate,” said Irina Lutz, instructional leader/principal. 

Because students could be studying English, math or social studies on any given day, their teachers have to be a jack-of-all trades. But the teachers also wonder how the budget loss and layoffs will impact them, Lutz said.

“’Cause they’re worried and I can’t give them a definite answer and I have to tell them I’m worried too,” she said. “I don’t know about my job security necessarily.”

When a teacher said it was unclear if Continued Hope would still be there in a couple weeks, the students tried to rally and find more people to come to the school.

“They’re all trying to kind of keep their spirits up,” Lutz said. “But just the uncertainty is really hard.”

Teacher Angela Patton feels the same uncertainty at Esperanza Prep She knew at age 13 that she wanted to be a teacher. If Patton loses her job, she plans to keep working with children. But she worries it will be hard to find another place like this.

“It is constantly on your mind because it’s an unknown,” she said. “And I think anyone would feel that way if they knew things were kind of up in the air.”

Matthew Casey has won Edward R. Murrow awards for hard news and sports reporting since he joined KJZZ as a senior field correspondent in 2015.