Early Childhood

Needs of ‘Whole Child’ May Factor in ESEA Renewal

By Alyson Klein — April 27, 2010 4 min read
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As Congress gears up for renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, lawmakers and the Obama administration are seeking to address a perennial complaint: that the current version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, places too much emphasis on students’ test scores and pays little attention to their health and other needs.

And at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee last week, lawmakers agreed that the idea of educating “the whole child” encompasses a wide range of support services, which advocates are hoping could be reflected in the rewrite of the ESEA.

Those include dental and mental health, as well as programs aimed at providing prekindergarten and library services, summer and after-school enrichment, mentoring, college counseling, and increased parent and community involvement. The whole-child concept can also refer to making sure schools attend to students’ nonacademic interests, through programs such as the arts and physical education.

Increasing offerings in such a broad array of programs would almost certainly mean schools would need to increase staffs, said U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the committee. But he and other lawmakers acknowledged that might be a tall order in tight budget times.

“If you’re going to add all this stuff on, doesn’t this require more personnel?” asked Sen. Harkin, whose panel is holding a series of hearings on ESEA reauthorization. “As you add all this stuff on, you’re going to have to add more people, mentors, librarians. … How do we do that?”

Not Just One Thing

Still, witnesses at last week’s ESEA hearing argued that programs aimed at a “holistic approach” to education have to be part of the mix if schools are truly going to boost student achievement.

Geoffrey Canada, the president and chief executive officer of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which has earned national accolades for its success in closing the achievement gap, said his program ensures that students have access to myriad health and counseling professionals, including dentists and social workers. The community-based organization serves 17,000 children living in a nearly 100-block area in the Harlem section of New York City.

“In communities where kids are failing in record numbers, you can’t just do one thing,” he said at the hearing. “We start with children at birth and stay with them until they graduate from college. … In the end, you have to create a series of supports that really meet all of their needs.”

Schools in the Harlem Children’s Zone are open 11 months a year. “That’s what it took” to really make progress, Mr. Canada said. Still, he acknowledged the budget challenges facing schools as the nation struggles to rebound from a major economic downturn.

In response to the fiscal squeeze, schools are not just “cutting the fat,” he said. “They’re cutting the muscle. … Are we investing enough in our children in this nation? I think the answer is no. I think there are huge areas of this country where all kids need to be in an early-education [program]. … I think that we’ve got to hold people accountable for results, but we also need to be able to pay for realistic investments.”

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a former Denver schools chief, asked witnesses whether Congress should start by providing school districts and communities with greater funding flexibility so that they could choose the support services that will be most beneficial.

Karen Pittman, the president of the Forum for Youth Investment,a nonprofit organization aimed at making sure students are ready for college, work, and life, said that might be a good approach since there is currently “enormous fragmentation” among such programs.

“Right now, there are over 300 federal programs that address [each] one of the problems we talked about today,” she said.

Early-Education Push

Across the Capitol, the U.S. House of Representatives that same day approved a bill aimed at helping to address one piece of the holistic education agenda: physical education.

The measure, which was approved on a voice vote, would require all districts and states to report on students’ physical activity, including the amount of time they spend in physical education. The bill would finance research to examine how children’s health affects their achievement.

The Obama administration is also trying to send a message that it understands that students’ health and welfare must be considered along with their academic needs.

The U.S. Department of Education last week announced that it will team up with the U.S. Department of Health and HumanServices to hold a “listening tour” aimed at gaining expert opinions on how to improve and expand early-childhood programs.

Also last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan touted the administration’s proposal, unveiled in its 2011 budget, to provide $210 million to help communities create Promise Neighborhoods. Those comprehensive programs would be modeled on Mr. Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. The Education Department’s fiscal 2010 budget includes $10 million for the Promise Neighborhoods initiative.

“If our children aren’t safe, they can’t learn,” Secretary Duncan told a forum on health sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. “If our children aren’t fed, they can’t learn. If our children can’t see the blackboard, they can’t learn.”

Sen. Harkin, who is also chairman of the subcommittee overseeing education spending, said in an interview that the $210 million proposed by the administration for the Promise Neighborhoods initiative is not going to be enough to help schools address students’ health and social needs. He declined to pinpoint what he thinks is a sufficient figure.

Sen. Harkin has said that he would like to hold a committee vote on a bill by June.

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2010 edition of Education Week as Needs of ‘Whole Child’ Factor in ESEA Renewal

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