Opportunities to Support Student Health in the New Every Student Succeeds Act

March 15, 2016

Last December, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which was last reauthorized in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). While a core focus of both ESSA and NCLB is supporting struggling schools, they offer a very different approach. While NCLB was primarily focused on academic performance, ESSA explicitly and implicitly recognizes the need for schools to support the whole child. ESSA’s new framework creates an important opportunity to reshape the education sector to better support student health and wellness.

Here at Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC), we’re working with our partners to ensure the vision set forth by ESSA is implemented and that the opportunities for supporting student health and wellness become realities. “I see great opportunities,” wrote Martin Blank, president of the nonprofit Institute for Educational Leadership and director of the IEL’s Coalition for Community Schools, in a recent Washington Post article. “And if we take advantage of them, many of our young people will be in schools where they are surrounded by adults who understand the importance of their social, emotional, physical, civic and ethical development, not just their academic development.” Blank is also on our steering committee for the National Collaborative on Education and Health.

A key focus of ESSA is ensuring the country’s most vulnerable children have access to the education and resources necessary to support their future success. Fortunately, ESSA takes important steps forward in recognizing health as a key strategy for supporting schools across the country. The law includes new language which allows states and school districts to use funding to create healthier school environments and encourages them to think more holistically about the student health needs in their communities and how to address them.

Some highlights of the ways in which ESSA supports student health and wellness include:

  • School improvement: Under ESSA, states can use school improvement funding (funding set aside to support school improvement in the lowest performing schools) to support student engagement and healthy and supportive school environments. Examples of eligible activities include implementing mental health awareness training programs for school personnel, expanding access to school-based mental health partnerships and supporting schools in integrating health and safety practices into their programs. Given that students in the nation’s lowest performing schools are disproportionately impacted by health conditions that impact their ability to learn, ensuring health and wellness are a part of school improvement programs is a key strategy for supporting student success in these schools.
  • School climate and safety measures: States and school districts are required to create annual report cards that include at least three academic indicators and one measure of school climate and safety. ESSA provides a number of examples of measures of school climate and safety, including chronic absenteeism. Adding chronic absenteeism to state and school report cards is a key strategy for elevating the importance of health and wellness and supporting education of the whole child.
  • Professional development: Under No Child Left Behind, professional development funding could only be used to support professional development around core academic subjects. Under ESSA, there is greater flexibility in terms of what professional development funding can be spent on which presents an important opportunity for providing school staff with the knowledge and skills need to create healthier school environments. For example, under ESSA, school districts can use professional development funding to train school personnel on strategies for addressing chronic absenteeism, how to link at-risk children with appropriate treatment and intervention services and how to support children affected by trauma.
  • Funding for safe and healthy students: A key component of ESSA is Title IV which authorizes funding for programming to support safe and healthy students. In order to access this funding, school districts are now required to complete a comprehensive needs assessment every three years to better understand the student needs within their community, including student health needs. Funding from Title IV can then be used to address those needs. This will help ensure school districts understand the student health needs in their community and develop programming to directly address those needs.
  • Well-rounded education: ESSA does away with the term “core academic subject” and replaces it with the term “well-rounded education.” Both health education and physical education are included in the definition of a well-rounded education.
  • Stakeholder engagement: A key focus of ESSA, especially Title I, is engaging key stakeholders, including teachers, principals, parents, school health providers and others, in the development of state and local plans for how funding will be used. Requiring this level of engagement presents an important opportunity to support health and wellness within these plans.

HSC is actively working to ensure that schools across the country can take advantage of these opportunities to promote student health and wellness. One of the primary ways we will support this work is through the National Collaborative on Education and Health which we co-convene with Trust for America’s Health. The Collaborative will be reviewing these key opportunities for supporting student health and working to develop strategies that states and schools can use.

ESSA is an important opportunity for supporting the conditions of health in schools across the country, and we look forward to working with our partners to ensure health remains a key part of how this act is put into use to support schools and students across the country.