The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) takes important steps forward in supporting student health. ESSA is a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was last reauthorized in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act. New requirements in ESSA related to chronic absenteeism and school health services have the potential to elevate the connection between health and learning in schools across the country.
That is why we are pleased to see the U.S. Department of Education (ED) taking the first steps towards implementing ESSA and seeking feedback from stakeholders across the country on issues that should be prioritized.
Last month, ED published a request for advice and recommendations on the implementation of ESSA’s Title I. Title I provides financial assistance to school districts and schools with high numbers of children from low-income families. As a result, the programs included in Title I reach some of the nation’s most vulnerable children—children who are affected disproportionately by health issues, such as asthma and obesity, which negatively impact their ability to learn. Supporting student health and wellness within Title I is a key strategy for addressing the achievement gap and supporting student success.
HSC worked with our partners at Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) to submit comments in response to ED’s request. Our comments build on many of the strategies and lessons learned from our work with the National Collaborative on Education and Health which we co-convene with TFAH. Our comments addressed the following issues:
- Including chronic absenteeism on state and local education agency (LEA) report cards: Title I of ESSA requires that both state and LEA report cards include rates of chronic absenteeism, defined by ED as missing 15 days or more of school for any reason in a school year. Given the connection between student health and chronic absenteeism, requiring states and LEAs to report their rates of chronic absenteeism is a key strategy for elevating the importance of student health and raising awareness about chronic absenteeism. In our comments, we requested that ED issue guidance that provides states, schools and communities with the knowledge and support needed to understand how to measure chronic absenteeism and effectively use chronic absenteeism data in early warning and intervention systems.
- Supporting health as part of well-rounded education and LEA plans: ESSA adds health and physical education to the list of subjects that define a student’s “well-rounded education.” We encouraged ED to permit schools to think broadly about how Title I grant funding can be used to develop and implement “well-rounded program[s] of instruction.” For example, this might include using Title I funding to implement healthy eating and physical activity programming, mental health programming or substance use prevention programming.
- Including school health and mental health services in schoolwide program plans: ESSA includes health services as a part of the Title I schoolwide program plans, specifically mentioning counseling, mental health and specialized instructional support services. We strongly support the explicit inclusion of these services in ESSA, and we also requested that ED include additional school health providers, including school nurses, in the guidance that is developed to support schools in developing program plans.
- Supporting parent and family engagement around health and wellness: Parent and family engagement is a core component of Title I. We requested that any guidance that is developed to support states and LEAs in engaging parents and families in activities to improve student achievement, include strategies to engage parents and families in efforts to create health-promoting school environments.
You can download our full comments. We look forward to continuing to work with partners and advocates to ensure ESSA is implemented in a way which supports student health and wellness.