Here’s what the feds recommend

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States should prioritize schools that are inclusive, equitable, and responsive to students’ social and emotional needs when spending the $1 billion they get to improve school safety, U.S. Department of Education officials say.

The Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to state education agencies on September 15, which outlines a list of priorities that states should consider when providing additional financial support for the mental health and well-being of students of the bipartisan Safer Communities Act, passed in response to mass shootings like the one at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas earlier this year.

The money is allocated by Title IV-A of the Every Student Achievement Act. The ministry has titled the new grant funding the grant program “Stronger Communities.” The program provides the grants to state education agencies, which administer the funds to local districts.

California received the largest share of funds with $119.8 million, followed by Texas with $93.9 million. Districts that receive the funds will have until the end of 2026 to spend them.

Although the money may be used for limited facility improvements, such as repairing door locks, the Department of Education urges districts to instead invest in inclusive and equitable practices that meet the social, mental, and physical needs of students.

“Research consistently shows that safe, inclusive, and supportive learning environments are associated with improved academic achievement and emotional well-being for students, as well as reduced disciplinary action,” said the U.S. Secretary. to Education, Miguel Cardona, in the letter. “As a result, students who feel a sense of belonging at school are also more likely to display positive behaviors.”

State education departments will have the ability to set criteria for which districts receive funding and how much. In the letter, Cardona encouraged state agencies to give the money to schools with high poverty rates and any of the following: a high student-to-mental health professional ratio; high rates of chronic absenteeism, exclusionary discipline, referrals to the juvenile justice system, bullying, harassment, community and school violence, or substance abuse; or schools that have recently experienced a natural disaster or traumatic event.

In addition to the criteria, the Department of Education has recommended that state agencies prioritize grants for schools that do the following:

1. Use evidence-based strategies to meet the social, emotional, and physical needs of students

The department’s first recommendation would ask state education agencies to prioritize grants for school districts that are committed to “implementing comprehensive, evidence-based strategies that address wellness needs.” social, emotional, physical and mental of each student; create positive, inclusive and supportive school environments; and increase access to local interventions and services.

Federal law categorizes evidence-based strategies into different levels. State agencies should prioritize school districts with the strongest types of evidence — “strong” Level 1 evidence and “moderate” Level 2 evidence, the letter says.

The Department for Education has also urged schools to “continuously evaluate interventions, strategies and practices so that they can ensure efforts are leading to improvement and success”. Schools can use the department’s online tools, the “What Works Clearinghouse” and “Best Practices Clearinghouse”, and technical assistance centers to help select evidence-based strategies, the letter says.

2. Engage the community when selecting and implementing new strategies for safe schools

Schools should include students, families, educators, staff and community organizations in developing and implementing strategies for safe and supportive learning environments, the letter says. This includes “giving particular attention to communities that face systemic barriers,” the letter states.

Engagement with families should occur early in the decision-making process and “be ongoing and collaborative,” the ministry said.

3. Use school safety policies and practices that advance equity and recognize trauma

The department recommends schools use the funding “to design and implement student-centered policies and practices that increase student belonging and provide safe, nurturing, and welcoming environments,” the letter states.

Although improvements such as replacing locks on doors and assessing building entrances are covered by the grant, they “can have adverse effects” if schools do not also work to promote learning, student growth and positive learning environments, the letter states.

Specifically, the department encouraged state agencies and local districts to use the money to pay for professional development, comprehensive emergency management planning, and behavioral and trauma-informed or bereavement mental health supports. for students. Schools should recognize that students of color, English language learners, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities may all experience safety and discipline policies in different ways, the letter says.

Education associations expressed support for the priorities set out in the letter.

“State education officials are committed to providing all students with an equitable education in a safe and supportive environment, and the bipartisan Safer Communities Act will help strengthen these efforts nationwide,” said Melissa McGrath, chief of staff for the State Schools Council of Chief Officers. . “We appreciate that the U.S. Department of Education has created an allocation process that provides transparency while allowing funding to get to schools as soon as possible.”

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