For years, high-need and low-performing schools have been required to develop plans for improvement. Despite hard work and the best intentions, many of the same schools and students continue to face disparities in educational outcomes. By more explicitly addressing underlying factors affecting academic achievement, especially health, in the development and implementation of those school improvement plans, states can achieve what the new federal education law intends: that every student succeeds.
This has important equity implications, given that the schools likely to be identified as needing comprehensive support and improvement disproportionately serve low-income students and students of color—populations that are already at risk for poor health and education outcomes.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires needs assessments in several places:
- When a school is identified as being in need of comprehensive support from the state agency due to their performance on the state’s accountability system, they must conduct a needs assessment that will help inform the remediation plan.
- Schools where at least 40 percent of the student population is living in poverty (or those that receive a waiver from the state) may decide to use their Title I funds to operate a schoolwide program. They must first conduct a comprehensive needs assessment to gain an understanding of the most pressing student academic needs and their root causes. The needs assessment will help them develop a comprehensive schoolwide plan to improve academic achievement.
- Local education agencies that receive $30,000 or more of Title IV grant funding must complete a needs assessment each year to determine student access to a well-rounded education, conditions for student learning that create a healthy and safe school environment and access to personalized learning opportunities.
Needs assessments can provide advocates with an opportunity to ensure that schools and local education agencies are considering the impact of health and wellness. Getting involved in the development and implementation of a needs assessment can ensure that factors such as school climate or opportunities for physical activity are examined as possible ways to improve academic achievement. Check out the State ESSA Plans to Support Student Health and Wellness: A Framework for Action, developed by Healthy Schools Campaign and Alliance for a Healthier Generation for a comprehensive guide to development of state ESSA plans, including needs assessments.
School-level needs assessments conducted under the proposed Title I regulations, and the resulting comprehensive support and improvement plans, could be strengthened by explicitly examining important health determinants and health issues that can contribute to student academic achievement and school performance. Several existing resources and assessment tools are available to support local education agencies and schools in integrating health into their needs assessments and comprehensive support and improvement plans. In addition, schools and districts can forge partnerships with agencies, including those addressing mental and behavioral health, housing stability, food security, economic development and juvenile justice issues, to leverage resources and support common education and health goals.
Needs assessments can also be developed to support indicators in the accountability system and/or school report card. For example, chronic absenteeism is a new requirement for state report cards and is being considered by a number of states for inclusion in their accountability measure, then the needs assessment should help schools identify the root causes of chronic absenteeism specific to their student population. While the causes of chronic absenteeism are multifold, student health conditions present ongoing challenges to attendance and particularly affect young children in ways that can shape academic outcomes for their entire school career. The needs assessment should help schools create coordinated interventions that include school and community-based resources.
Resources to Support Needs Assessments
School needs assessment tools that consider these topics are publicly available and accessible. For example, many commercial vendors and nonprofit organizations offer tools that schools can use to assess instructional practices or curriculum design and implementation. Some of these resources include:
- CDC’s School Health Index is an online self-assessment and planning tool that schools can use to improve their health and safety policies and programs.
- Alliance for a Healthier Generation offers the Healthy Schools Program Assessment, which focuses on schools’ physical activity and nutrition environments and is aligned to the CDC’s School Health Index.
- ASCD, an organization representing educators dedicated to supporting teaching and learning, offers the School Improvement Tool that combines educationally focused components, such as curriculum and instruction, with policies and programs to support the development and nurturing of children’s educational and developmental needs.
- The Coalition for Community Schools’ tool, the Community Schools Assessment Checklist, can serve as a planning tool for schools to develop strategies to strengthen school-community partnerships, improve coordination of existing programs and services, and assess levels of financial and material support.
- The YMCA’s Community Healthy Living Index provides suggestions of community resources that can complement or supplement a school’s offerings. State education agencies often provide guidance or sample needs assessments to assist local education agencies in their needs assessment process.
All of these resources can help states and schools include health and wellness into needs assessments they are already doing. Healthy Schools Campaign’s response to Illinois’ state plan articulates this type of comprehensive approach. Ensuring that school improvement plans address the health reasons affecting academic achievement, we can ensure that all students are healthy and ready to learn—just like the new education law intends.