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What does the Every Student Succeeds Act mean for Philly youngsters?

Students from a neighborhood school pitched in

2001's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) -- with its federally mandated education standards -- has been replaced by 2015's Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). On February 24, the Friends Center's Exchange PHL hosted Maura McInerney, a senior attorney at the Education Law Center – PA, for the latest installment of its Breakfast Series to discuss the shifts ESSA will bring to U.S. schools (with most changes taking effect by December of this year).

While McInerney was frank about many portions of the law that maintain nebulous standards in terms of education access, goals, and enforcement, the new rules mean a goodbye to mandates for the controversial Common Core teaching style.

Teachers "had no idea how to implement the Common Core," she explained. Now states are required to adopt "challenging" academic standards -- which could mean a continuance of Common Core or a new standard (Pennsylvania opted to maintain Common Core).

So how does ESSA impact Pennsylvania and Philadelphia schools? Some of its provisions build on the original intent of NCLB with policies to maintain and increase access to quality education for at-risk children. This is important for our state because Pennsylvania has the largest disparity in the country between its wealthy school districts and its under-funded school districts, and children are hurting.

One notable change from NCLB -- particularly relevant to a state with wide funding gaps -- is a new requirement disaggregating data about students' performance. Evaluations will no longer group all children together, but allow special consideration for students who face extra challenges, such as kids who are homeless or living in poverty, kids in foster care, kids with disabilities, or kids learning English as a second language.

ESSA also works to eliminate punitive measures for teachers whose students fail to meet federal standards. According to McInerney, this was resulting in counselors and teachers advising kids to miss tests when they were at risk of failing them.

ESSA also hopes to better support kids who now wind up in Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth programs (AEDY). A disproportionate number of students in AEDY programs have disabilities (McInerney helped open a legal investigation into the problem). And ironically, one issue that often lands kids in AEDY programs is truancy (how can children be labeled "disruptive" if they’re not even present, she wondered). ESSA aims to implement conditions to reduce bullying and harassment and "reduce the overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom." Currently kids in AEDY programs must change schools to enter their new classrooms, and, as a punitive measure, lose access to art and music classes, maintaining only "core subjects." This does little to reduce disruptive behavior or truancy.

Another provision of ESSA that could impact Philadelphia schools in particular relates to grant programs for school districts. Districts that receive over $30,000 must spend "20 percent on at least one activity that helps students be safe and healthy."

What could that mean for Philly? The restoration of school nurses. Due to budget cuts, local schools have lost 100 nurses since 2011. In some cases, a single nurse now covers as many as five schools. ESSA could help change that.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Maura McInerney, Education Law Center – PA 

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