Four Ways ESSA Can Help Texas Create Safe and Supportive Schools

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) recently released results from an online survey it conducted to receive feedback on how the agency should implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the new federal education law. Responses from the more than 20,000 parents, educators, and students show strong support for TEA to include strategies that promote safe and supportive school climates, help students develop interpersonal skills, and address the needs of students with mental heath concerns as it develops a strategic vision and plan for the state education system as required by the new law.

The results aren’t surprising because they align with what research tells us are important components of achieving academic success. Positive school climates – including schools implementing school-wide practices like positive behavior interventions, social emotional learning strategies, and offering school-based mental health services and supports – are tied to many telling indicators of student success such as lower dropout rates, decreased incidence of violence, increased teacher retention, and higher student achievement. That’s why experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Education, and a growing number of states encourage schools to implement policies and practices that foster safe and supportive school climates.

The Texas Legislature already calls on school campuses to maintain “safe and disciplined” environments conducive to student learning [Education Code Sec. 4.001]. Students certainly need to feel safe at school – both physically and emotionally – to reach their academic potential. However, some discipline strategies have been shown to seriously undermine school efforts to provide environments that promote learning.  A smarter objective for the state is for schools to provide “safe and supportive” school climates.

ESSA recognizes the importance of school climates, too. Below are four provisions within ESSA that require or allow the Texas Education Agency and school districts to take steps to provide students with climates and conditions shown to improve learning and school success in all students:

  1. When evaluating school performance, states are now required to include at least one indicator that isn’t tied to academic test scores. ESSA doesn’t tell states what non-academic indicator they should use when evaluating a school’s performance, but the law does highlight school climate and safety as a possible candidate. Texas tracks some indicators that are tied to school climate, such as discipline referrals, but they are not tied to school accountability. Additionally, under the state’s A-F school rating system established by HB 2804 during the 2015 legislative session, schools are required to rate themselves on indicators of community and student engagement. Just like ESSA directs states to select their own non-academic indicators, HB 2804 requires schools to select locally determined indicators for community and student engagement to be tracked and reported. ESSA and HB 2804 weigh these non-academic indicators much less than academic performance indicators in assessing school performance.
  2. Annual report cards for the state, districts, and schools must include measures associated with school climate. While they might not be tied to accountability, the federally required report cards will now have to include measures like rates of in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, school-related arrests, referrals to law enforcement, chronic absenteeism, and incidences of violence, including bullying and harassment.
  3. States must identify how they will help Title I schools improve conditions for student learning as part of the new Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (SSAE) program. While the new SSAE funding each school receives is expected to be modest (we’ve heard estimates it may be about 5 percent of their Title I allocation), schools will be required to use at least 20 percent of the funds to support strategies that focus on safe and healthy students. These funds can be used for things like providing school-based mental health services; promoting supportive school climates and supportive school discipline; dropout prevention; bullying prevention; and establishing community partnerships and parent involvement. Each of these strategies are valuable tools in keeping kids healthy and learning, and any funding schools receive to help pay for these types of efforts is welcome. With nearly 80 percent of schools in Texas categorized as Title I (defined by a high percentage of low-income students), Texas can use these funds to make meaningful progress in helping schools promote the health and safety of the vast majority of Texas students.
  4. School districts can use professional development (Title II) funds to train school personnel on strategies to address nonacademic barriers to student learning.  This can include things like making referrals for students with or at risk of trauma or mental illness, forming partnerships with community mental health providers, and addressing issues related to school learning conditions, such as safety, peer interaction, drug and alcohol abuse, or chronic absenteeism.

As TEA develops its strategic vision and plan for the state’s public education system, it should continue to work with public stakeholders to ensure ESSA implementation reflects and benefits from the input of families, educators, and community and advocacy partners. The online survey was a good first step in gaining public input, but it should not be the last. The agency should provide meaningful opportunities for the public to provide further input into the development of the ESSA implementation plan prior to its draft release for public comment. Other public agencies hold public hearings to inform the development of their strategic plans. A similar opportunity by TEA would be very welcome.

If TEA’s goal is to improve the academic outcomes of students, it must make safe and supportive school climate strategies a priority. While safe and supportive school climate practices are known to help all students do better in school, they are especially important for students at higher risk for school struggles, such as students experiencing mental health concerns, students with disabilities, and students involved with the child welfare and justice systems.

TEA needs to be a leader in helping schools coordinate and align the different programs they are already using that impact school climate. Texas has a network of education service centers (ESCs) that offer schools information and training on things like positive behavior management and supports, bullying prevention, and family and community engagement. However, with separate ESCs leading different efforts, training related to school climate is largely planned and delivered in silos, and outside of some narrow mandates, much of the training is optional. Strategically using different programs and strategies in a more coordinated way stands to maximize their individual and collective impacts.

The Texas Legislature needs to provide TEA with funding and direction to support these efforts, which will impact more than the educational outcomes of students. When students feel safe, connected and engaged in schools that educate the whole child, students are less likely to become involved in the public mental health, child welfare, or juvenile justice systems.

Schools can take advantage of the opportunities and resources provided by ESSA to improve school climate. This includes partnering with community providers who can help address some nonacademic barriers to student learning, providing school-based or off-campus services and supports that meet the needs of their local districts and families.