Unaccompanied undocumented minors—children under the age of 18 who arrive in the United States without lawful status and without an accompanying parent or legal guardian—are an especially vulnerable subset of the newcomer population.
The number of unaccompanied undocumented minors arriving each month has increased from a few thousand children in 2009 to a peak of nearly 19,000 in March 2021.
Unaccompanied minors are likely to have experienced trauma in their home country as well as on their journey to the U.S.
Once they arrive, they are detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection—sometimes for days or even weeks—before being transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The arduous journey along with the jail-like conditions of detention centers and disorientation from dealing with the U.S. legal system can have a cumulative effect on children, leading to longer term mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
This case study describes an extraordinary effort to create a temporary school for newly arrived unaccompanied minors in San Diego County. The school—named Futuro Brillante (Bright Future)—represented the potential of collective efforts to welcome unaccompanied minors, address their needs, and prepare them for the next stage of their journey as they seek asylum in the U.S. Educators, nonprofit organizations, public agencies, and community leaders came together to create a unique student-centered school in just over a week and give more than 3,000 young girls and boys an exceptional learning experience. The school drew on the latest knowledge and research in the learning sciences and trauma-informed practice to provide a different sort of introduction to the U.S. for newly arrived immigrant minors. This brief describes the school’s key features as well as the conditions that facilitated its swift creation and success. While the work of Futuro Brillante has been sunsetted, the lessons learned can be applied to other educational settings seeking to serve one of the most vulnerable, and resilient, student populations in the U.S.
To address the unprecedented influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the border, the Biden administration authorized the creation in early 2021 of more than a dozen temporary shelters across the country. The shelters—known as Emergency Intake Centers—were meant to create more suitable accommodation for children than the overcrowded, jail-like U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities. The effort, led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, aimed to provide services for unaccompanied children “consistent with best practices/ standards in emergency response in disasters or other humanitarian situations—clean and comfortable sleeping quarters, meals, toiletries, laundry, and access to medical services.”
On March 22, 2021, San Diego County Superintendent of Schools Paul Gothold received a call from the director of the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), Nick Macchione. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had invited San Diego HHSA to participate in creating a San Diego Emergency Intake Center, slated to open in a mere ten days. Macchione asked Gothold if the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) would be interested in providing educational programming for the several thousand children anticipated to arrive. On behalf of SDCOE, Gothold accepted.
During the next ten days, SDCOE would become a key member of a massive cross-organizational team of community leaders, service providers, public agencies, and volunteers. Well over a dozen service and community organizations joined the effort to set up basic service provisions, such as health care, mental health support, food and clothing, and legal aid, for the newly arrived migrant youth. SDCOE was charged with establishing a temporary school within the intake center designed to support the children during their stay. They named the school Futuro Brillante (“Bright Future”). When the first group of 500 children arrived on March 31, the team was ready.
During the next 90 days, the school received 3,200 children, primarily 13- to 17-year-old girls as well as their 5- to 12-year-old siblings (both boys and girls).
The school was housed at the San Diego Convention Center, along with the sleeping quarters, recreational space, and medical facilities that made up the Emergency Intake Center. The school included 12 classrooms, each with the capacity for up to 25 students at a time. Class was offered in three 90-minute blocks a day so that each student could attend one 90-minute block of school with their “pods,” a way of grouping children to limit the spread of COVID-19. The school also organized evening enrichment activities from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. daily to provide additional learning and support opportunities for students.
When the students were not in class, they attended other medical, legal, and care appointments scheduled throughout the day. Community partners organized caretakers so that each pod of students always had a caring adult with them, even throughout the night. Although the U.S. Department of Homeland Security maintained a continuous presence in the convention center, its visibility was tempered by the numerous other adults and caregivers.
Students who attended Futuro Brillante ranged in age from 5 to 17 years old. They hailed from countries throughout Latin America, including El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Brazil. They spoke a mix of languages like Spanish, Portuguese, and indigenous languages.
Most students had been through grueling travel and border-crossing experiences, and many had undertaken the journey on foot. All had been separated from their adult relatives or caregivers. Some, but not all, were able to stay with a sibling.
When they first arrived, the students stayed several nights in a Border Station—known among students as “la Hillera” (“the Cooler”)—where they were held in small concrete cells with concrete benches and 24-7 fluorescent lighting. The students were then transferred to Central Processing Stations (“la Perrera” or “the Kennel”), where they received food, clothing, and medical care. Holding spaces at the processing stations were often set up in large warehouse-like spaces, with concrete floors, chain-link fence walls, mattresses on the floor, and emergency blankets.
Despite these grueling circumstances, students arrived at the Emergency Intake Center with a mix of emotions, all about to begin their journey to seek asylum in the U.S.
What SDCOE Did
The Futuro Brillante school drew on the expertise of nearly every department of SDCOE. From the moment Superintendent Gothold received the call, SDCOE mobilized to create a unique educational experience reflecting many features of trauma-informed practice and the science of learning and development.
Creating an Environment of Safety and Belonging
SDCOE staff knew from the get-go that students would be coming from an arduous, if not traumatic, experience. Establishing a safe, affirming environment was a priority. This began with creating a warm and welcoming physical space for the students—a sharp contrast to the jail-like conditions of their previous location. “We were aware of the kinds of experiences that students were coming from and what they had been through on their way here. So we tried to make the space as safe and welcoming as possible,” said Assistant Superintendent Gloria Ciriza. The school space was established on the second floor of the convention center along a windowed corridor filled with natural light. The physical space eventually included not only classrooms but also a library, play spaces, calming corners, and cozy nooks.
Staff incorporated daily traditions to set a tone of affirmation and belonging. Every day, when each new cohort of students entered the school, the staff welcomed them with cheerful music from their home countries, smiles, and high fives. School principal Roberto Carrillo described this: “When we would see the students, we’d have a line, and we’d walk them in. And we’re dancing and clapping and singing songs. It’s like we’re saying, ‘Hey, it’s a new day, you’re going to be OK here.’” Prior to his role as principal of Futuro Brillante, Carrillo had been principal of multiple alternative education schools (Juvenile Court and Community Schools) in San Diego County, and he received the Administrator of the Year award in 2019.
To inform his work with Futuro Brillante, Carrillo drew from his extensive work serving students who had experienced severe trauma as well as his experience with building creative, alternative, responsive educational spaces.
Starting each school session with festive music reflecting students’ home countries and preferences created an environment that affirmed students’ own cultures and was filled with joy and familiarity. It set a tone for students, signaling that the adults were happy to be there with them. Tracy Thompson, executive director of SDCOE’s Juvenile Court and Community Schools, described the welcoming:
Music is something that goes across all cultures, right? So we would ask the students what type of music they wanted to hear. And every day, I’m out there dancing with our teachers and staff, with the students. It sets a tone and creates an environment that’s so welcoming.
Staff also implemented relationship-based practices to help students arrive each day supported to engage. Upon entering the classroom, students had a check-in with a caring adult, which Carrillo described: “We had a check-in process where, in their language, we’d ask the student, ‘How are you feeling today?’” Students often used smiley faces on sticky notes to indicate how they were feeling. “If a student reported a ‘sad face,’ we’d make sure that an adult was there to check in on them and get them the support they needed. We wanted to make sure they knew we were there for them,” Ciriza added. The multilayered check-in ensured that students were systematically screened for additional social-emotional support within the context of their relationship with the caring adults in the room.
Reinforcing Students’ Strengths and Resilience
At Futuro Brillante, all school activities were designed to reinforce students’ strength, resilience, and social-emotional development. Carrillo explained:
One of the functions of the curriculum was to help students to see and celebrate their strengths. Our role was helping students see: These are attributes that you might not realize you have but that we want you to know about.
Reflective activities were part of the daily curriculum and incorporated language lessons and literacy/oracy skills. For example, in one lesson students were invited to draw self-portraits of themselves as superheroes, framing their self-image as one of strength. In another lesson, students were introduced to the poem “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” by Tupac Shakur and invited to reflect on their own adversity (concrete) and resilience (rose). Ciriza shared:
We wanted students to recognize their own strength and resilience. And we wanted to prepare them for the journey ahead, which we knew would have more challenges for many. We only had a short time with the students, so we wanted to make sure they had enough kindness, compassion, and love as well as mental health/wellness strategies to get them through the next stage of their journeys … We wanted students to be able to say, ‘When I’m afraid, what strategies can I use to control the fear? How can I use breathing techniques to calm myself down?’ Or ‘When I’m lost or confused, how can I check in with myself to make a good decision?’ We did a lot of self-awareness skills building to help them in the next stage of their journey.
The multimodal forms of expression allowed students to celebrate their strengths and the fullness of their emotional experiences, reflecting a healing-centered approach.
The music, art, journal-writing, and relationship-building activities in the classroom all became part of enhancing students’ self-awareness, reinforcing a positive self-narrative, and increasing the social-emotional tools available for their resilience, strength, and healing.
Making Learning Relevant
At Futuro Brillante, everything students did in the classroom was designed to contribute directly to their success as newcomer students in the U.S. Helping students with basic English language skills was a priority that was integrated into daily lessons. Community-building activities included games that introduced common English phrases used in the classroom, such as “Good morning,” “My name is,” “My favorite subject is,” or “Now it’s time to.” Check-in questions asked students to identify their home countries on a map, which allowed students to name and celebrate their home cultures as well as see (and name) their current geographic location.
Another language-building activity was grounded in a geography lesson. Students observed and drew the cityscape seen through the large convention center windows, labeling key landmarks if they were able to and practicing English vocabulary. Carrillo reported:
We took students to the windows and we had them point out what an airplane is, what a building is, what a trolley is, what a street is, what a street sign is. … That way, they would be able to relate it to a real-life experience instead of just seeing [it] on a piece of paper.
The geographic dislocation during the migration experience can be alienating; geography lessons had the added advantage of helping students understand their current location in relation to their overall journey.
Language learning for the students was always embedded within specific practical lessons. For example, one of the lessons—developed by an outdoor educator member of the SDCOE team—incorporated social-emotional learning, English and Spanish vocabulary, and science. Carrillo reported:
They did a lesson on how we nurture nature to grow, which also means ‘How do we nurture ourselves to grow?’ from a social-emotional perspective. We used the example of seeds: ‘If you want this seed to grow, what do you have to do? What do you have to give it? What are some challenges that would not help that seed grow?’ We talked about this from a nature and science perspective. Then we talked about it from a social-emotional perspective: ‘How does that translate to you as a person? What are some of the things that you need to grow? That you need to happen to be nurtured? What are some of the things that can be roadblocks as you’re trying to grow?’ And then from the academic perspective, we were practicing sight words, everything in both English and Spanish.
Once again, instructional content was directly relevant to the students’ own emotional journeys and included points of reference—seeds, plants, and gardens—that transcended specific national boundaries.
The Futuro Brillante curriculum was designed to be accessible for students of a wide range of ages and with varying degrees of formal education. Lessons were designed to be directly applicable to the situations that students likely would encounter as they continued their resettlement journey. Carrillo reflected: “We wanted them to walk away with experiences that not only increase their capacity in speaking, writing, and oracy … but also give them the opportunity to make something that they can use right away, wherever they might be placed.”
How Did SDCOE Do It?
The key features of Futuro Brillante reflect many best practices in education more broadly: learning that is relevant and attuned to students’ experiences, that supports their social-emotional as well as cognitive development, and that is grounded in a safe, culturally affirming environment. These are the conditions for learning that our education systems too often struggle to create at scale. What made the Futuro Brillante experience possible? This section elaborates on the core conditions that facilitated this innovative effort.
Shared Vision and Urgency
The Futuro Brillante team was motivated by a shared vision for the experience they wanted to create for students along with a pressing sense of urgency. When SDCOE accepted the charge of creating a temporary school for unaccompanied minors, it assembled a team to discuss what the school would look like. Ciriza described this:
We had representatives from all departments of our County Office of Education. We had people from our learning and leadership team, student services team, human resources, mental health team, Juvenile Court and Community Schools— everyone was in the room when we were talking about who’d be coming.
At first, the team thought they’d be receiving boys. Ciriza reported:
We knew they were coming from a long journey on foot, that it had been an arduous process to even just get to where they were. We generally knew what countries they were coming from, that 90 percent of them were from Spanish-speaking countries.
Understanding who the students were and something about their background and context allowed the team to focus their vision for the school. Ciriza explained:
We knew that in terms of academics, English language development was important. We also knew that these were kids who had just experienced a traumatic journey getting here, and their mental health and well-being were the other biggest factors.
When the team learned that they would be receiving primarily young women, they pivoted slightly, but their vision remained intact, as Ciriza described:
The team knew that for many of their students, this would be their first schooling experience in the United States, and in some cases, students’ first experiences in a school ever. Building the vision of what the school was going to look like was centered around all those pieces grounded in a welcoming environment.
This shared vision gave the team focus and grounding as they undertook the massive operational challenges of establishing a new school in a new location with a new constellation of partners.
Leveraging Community Resources
The SDCOE team had experience working with newcomer students through various other projects and programs over the years. The scale and urgency of the Futuro Brillante project was unique, though, as was its integration into a federal program. The SDCOE leadership team knew they would have to draw on both internal and external resources to make the school a reality. Everyone within SDCOE played a role, as Ciriza explained:
There was no department in our organization untouched by this work. Everyone played such an important role from the integrated technology [IT] department to the communications team, the business services team, our Court and Community Schools staff, and our outdoor education teachers and staff. Our IT team was amazing. They set us up with computers, networks, and printers on site at the convention center in a matter of just a few days. Our communications team was incredible. They helped us navigate some of the polarization that was happening around the Emergency Intake Center by managing our messaging and accurately communicating about our work with the children.
The Juvenile Court and Community Schools department played a critical role in developing and implementing the curriculum. Executive Director Tracy Thompson reported:
Our team had extensive experience working with students who have also been in traumatic situations. Because of that experience, we wanted to make sure that we provided social-emotional learning activities, integrated the arts, all those kinds of things.
The Juvenile Court and Community Schools team pulled in team members to staff these integrated functions of the school, according to Thompson: “We already had a visual performing arts coordinator. We already had a community schools manager. We had our businesspeople. We had folks who took the lead with HR, and we just put them into action.” The Juvenile Court and Community Schools staff also were already comfortable teaching in classrooms spanning multiple age and grade levels, as Thompson explained:
Our norm is to be a little different. In our schools … you’re going to be teaching multiple grade levels at multiple levels [at the same time] ... so it’s not going to throw us off that much with the uniqueness of the service population.
The SDCOE team drew its teaching staff from across the Court and Community Schools group, the outdoor education group, and a mix of substitute and volunteer teachers. Several classified staff stepped in as teachers and/or instructional aides, often bringing critical linguistic and cultural skills to the classroom.
In addition to the resources within SDCOE, the team drew on external resources from throughout the community. Futuro Brillante hosted 2 hours of enrichment programming each evening, staffed by community volunteers. Artists, musicians, dancers, drummers, magicians, circus performers, and others shared their talents with the community of young women and their siblings.
Vetted staff were also hired and trained as caretakers for the children by the service provider organizations working at the intake center. Caretakers signed in through security and took shifts with the students. Each pod of students always had a caretaker with them, 24 hours a day. “We even had someone there with students during the night, so if they woke up frightened, or needed a glass of water, or to use the bathroom, someone would be with them,” reported Ciriza.
The presence and strength of existing relationships across the county helped facilitate meaningful partnerships to provide wraparound supports for the students. More than a dozen community-based organizations and service providers collaborated to provide medical assistance, mental health support, legal aid, and other key services. The existing relationships meant that, in many cases, SDCOE already had memorandums of understanding in place to manage factors like liability and data privacy, and the trusting relationships allowed them to communicate and collaborate more effectively.
Exceptional Communication and Collaboration
The work of Futuro Brillante would not have been possible without exceptional communication and collaboration among the adults working in the service of the students. From its inception, the school was a highly coordinated effort that involved many individuals and organizations. During the first days of planning, the SDCOE team met several times each day. Including all departments in the first planning meeting allowed everyone within the organization to both contribute to and become engaged with a collaborative vision for what the school needed to be. As planning progressed, a core team continued to meet daily, sometimes multiple times a day, and engage other individuals and departments as needed.
Once the school opened and began receiving students, the staff continued to communicate regularly. For staff members on site at the convention center, this included a morning and evening huddle as well as a “reset” between every student block. Carrillo reported: “We would just do a quick circle before the students came every morning, and every afternoon we gave each other updates.” The staff updated each other on the students but also did their own brief check-ins, Carrillo said: “We checked in with our staff about how they were feeling: ‘Are you feeling supported? What do you need?’” The regular communication addressed key operational and logistical needs, creating a relatively seamless experience for the students, and provided staff with an opportunity to check in emotionally so that they could share their needs and recenter their focus on supporting the students.
The experience of Futuro Brillante illustrates the potential to mobilize the resources within a county effectively and efficiently to welcome and serve students who are newly arrived to the country. Although its circumstances were unique, Futuro Brillante’s success underscores many lessons that can inform newcomer education in conventional preK–12 educational settings: create safe, affirming, and joyful learning environments; systematically build meaningful relationships with students; incorporate multimodal learning that reaffirms positive self-concept and development; and provide directly useful instructional content. These practices can be implemented both in the general education classroom and through instruction targeted to newcomers. Current opportunities in California—such as the California Community Schools Partnership Program, various school/culture climate initiatives, and even early literacy programs focused on dual-language learners—can incorporate some or all of these features into their strategies.
The organizational conditions established by SDCOE were another key reason for the success of the Futuro Brillante school. SDCOE assembled a broad cross-sector team with representatives from multiple departments to contribute to creating a shared vision. That vision was grounded in students’ contexts and needs and motivated by a sense of urgency. The team engaged internal expertise and external partners, leveraging a wide range of relationships, skills, and contributions, and structured impeccable communication, coordination, and collaboration into daily routines. These organizational conditions were in place long before SDCOE agreed to create a temporary school for unaccompanied minors and thus were a strong foundation upon which to implement the program.
Although San Diego Emergency Intake Center has closed its doors, the school and center have been recognized as a model for other emergency intake sites across the country, which still receive hundreds of unaccompanied young people every day. For many of the adults involved, the experience remains one of the most deeply rewarding experiences of their careers. Nearly every adult interviewed for this case study reported feeling that they had received far more from their work with the students of Futuro Brillante than they had given. Perhaps most important, for the 3,214 children who attended the school—the vast majority of whom have resettled somewhere in the country as their asylum cases have been resolved—the school offered a bright, new future, in a new country filled with possibility: Futuro Brillante.
Futuro Brillante Timeline
Total number of days: 95
- March 22: SDCOE received the call in late afternoon.
- March 23: SDCOE convened a team meeting.
- March 24: The team convened a more intensive group.
- March 25: The team visited the convention center.
- March 26: The team started collaborating, planning, and creating.
- March 27: The first 500 girls arrived (Saturday).
- March 31: The school’s first day (500 students).
Futuro Brillante At-a-Glance
The total number of children served was 3,213, primarily 13- to 17-year-old undocumented unaccompanied girls and their 5- to 12-year-old siblings (boys and girls). Students came from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Brazil.
Twelve classrooms served a total of 750 students in three blocks per day (250 students per block). Class times were 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. Evening enrichment was from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
On average, 25 staff members were on site each day. Staff included the principal, two administrative assistants, two instructional coaches, 12 teachers (outdoor education, classroom teacher volunteers, and substitute teacher volunteers), 12 instructional assistants, an integrated technologist, a coordinator, and staff from each department at SDCOE.
This publication is part of a series on newcomer education in California that was produced by the PACE Research–Practice–Policy Partnership on Newcomer Education. Additional publications in the series appear under "Related Publications" on this page.