Finding Opportunities in the Policy Environment
Non-academic student supports and universal prevention strategies are gaining traction in schools as it becomes more recognized that these areas have a positive impact on academic learning and social-emotional development. Many schools, districts, and communities are working to address the social and economic disadvantages that students experience, such as poverty, exposure to community violence, trauma, and toxic stress.
Ideally, your comprehensive child development and prevention approach will have a positive effect across multiple issues in your community and state. Linking to current and emerging issues and demonstrating the broad benefits of your approach may help you gain support and advance your agenda. Here are some issues that may be drawing public attention in your state and community.
- The Every Student Succeeds Act. In 2015 Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the latest reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and replacing the 2004 version, the No Child Left Behind Act. ESEA was passed to provide federal funds so that all children are ensured the opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and is the most significant federal education law. ESSA, which took effect in the 2017-18 school year, requires State Education Agencies to develop state plans in consultation with state stakeholders (including teachers and parents), that demonstrate how they will ensure that all children are receiving the opportunity for high quality education. These state plans must be submitted and approved by the federal Department of Education in order to receive federal funding. The law continues to require academic accountability measures, but states now have flexibility in how they will be measured and eliminates the punitive consequences for schools that are not strong performers. Instead, states must stipulate in their plans how they will support the lowest performing schools by conducting a needs assessment and using evidence-based practices to improve deficiencies. In addition, states are now required to include a non-academic indicator as part of their accountability system. Many states have included chronic absenteeism or graduation rates as this measure, frequently referred to as the fourth indicator. ESSA provides additional safe-guards for vulnerable students, including funding for English Language Learners (ELL), migratory and homeless students, student supports and teacher training, and more.
- Chronic Absenteeism. Chronic absenteeism is a newer term to describe absentee data, which historically has looked at daily attendance rates rather than trends in individual long-term absences. It is typically defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year (approximately 18 days a year), and is a good predictor of reading proficiency, academic achievement, discipline, and school drop-out. While there are many root causes of chronic absenteeism, student health (including mental, emotional, and behavioral health issues) is a leading cause.. Many state ESSA plans name chronic absenteeism as one of their non-academic indicators.
- School Discipline. Reducing the use of exclusionary discipline practices, such as out-of-school suspensions, and zero-tolerance policies have gained momentum as a means of preventing school dropout and stemming the school to prison pipeline. Disparities exist in the use of suspensions and expulsions as a disciplinary measure. Many policymakers and educators are turning to alternative approaches to school discipline and punishment, such as the use of restorative practices and positive behavior supports.
- School Climate. School climate is defined by the quality of the interpersonal relationships among students, staff, and parents; the school norms, values, and expectations; and perceptions of physical, social and emotional safety within the school. Addressing school safety by decreasing the incidence of harassment, bullying, gang involvement, youth violence, and substance abuse are common federal grant priorities. Improving school climate through whole-school approaches, such as family engagement strategies and social-emotional learning opportunities is included in some states’ bullying prevention and intervention laws, and some states have included school climate measurements in their ESSA plans.
- National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments: School Climate
- ELL. Research in best practices in English Language Learner (ELL) programs and dual language instruction highlight the importance of cultural competence, professional development and family engagement, and a climate of safety and belonging. The percentage of Hispanic/Latino U.S. public school students has grown from 19% (2004) to 25% (2014), while the percentage of white and black children has declined. Census Bureau projections indicate that by 2018, fewer than half of the children in the U.S. will be non-Hispanic White. While the majority of Latino children is American-born and speaks English, it is the children of immigrants that are leading this change in our demographics and will be setting the course for the future of this country.
- ACEs, Trauma, and Toxic Stress. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are stressful or traumatic events, including abuse and neglect, that have a serious impact on health and opportunity over a lifetime. Understanding that toxic stress can lead to learning problems, there is growing interest in understanding and buffering students from such major toxic stressors as poverty, abuse, violence exposure, and other traumas. Research has highlighted the central role of trauma in precipitating mental and substance use disorders and the linkage between trauma experiences and other chronic physical diseases.
- Opioid Use. Prescription drugs, heroin, and other opioid use has ravaged many U.S. communities, and has left school and community partners struggling to address its devastating impact on children. The opioid epidemic has exposed children to drug use in their homes and communities, incarcerated parents and family members, and required the response of child serving agencies. There is increasing concern about the impact of the opioid epidemic on children at home and in the school setting.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse: Opioids
- Workforce Development. As members of the future workforce, policy makers, businesses, and educators are recognizing that students will benefit from a focus on the development of “soft skills”. Employers seek qualified candidates with more than the strictly academic skills that have been the recent focus of schools; Interpersonal and communication skills, empathy, conflict resolution, teamwork, and problem-solving are needed for students’ postsecondary education and careers. Social-emotional learning and development curricula, programs, and initiatives will help students master the necessary “soft skills” to succeed in school and beyond.
- Community Schools. Community schools are hubs of the community, connecting students, staff, and families to resources and frequently opening the school for community use of all sorts. There are many different ways that community schools are structured, but some basic elements include: multiple partnerships with community resources; a supportive environment for students, families, and community members; engagement with students and the community beyond the school’s academic hours.
 Rojas-Flores, Lisseth. (2017). Latino US-Citizen Children of Immigrants: A Generation at High Risk. Summary of Selected Young Scholars Program Research. New York, NY: Foundation for Child Development.
- Children’s Cabinets. Many states and localities have initiated children’s cabinets that seek to coordinate the resources and services that are provided to children. These interagency coalitions work to break down siloes among child- and family-serving organizations.