Upon returning to my position as West Virginia’s superintendent of schools for a second time, in 2017, I recall a county superintendent presenting to the state Board of Education and explaining that the largest need in his county was for alternative education programs for first-grade students. I was alarmed to see just how much the student population has changed.
The growing need for social and emotional support at such an early age is staggering.
The consequences of poverty and the opioid crisis on West Virginia’s students cannot be ignored. One in four children in West Virginia is living in poverty, the fourth-highest rate in the country. More than 6,500 children are living in foster care — a number that has increased more than 92 percent since 2000. The rate of infants born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome has increased from 21.2 per 1,000 live births in 2010 to 50.6 in 2018, an increase of 138 percent. More than 10,000 students have been identified as homeless. West Virginia has the highest drug overdose deaths involving opioids.
This is what our students are up against every single day. These are the obstacles our students have to overcome before they can even begin to focus on reading, writing, math or science.
Research shows that nonacademic factors, such as poor physical or mental health, lack of adequate housing and instability at home, influence students’ ability to concentrate, learn, process information and behave well in class.
And yet, for many students facing hardship, public education is the answer to overcoming these obstacles. A thriving education system is the best chance our students have of finding academic success and becoming healthy, productive members of society.
Public schools carry much of the burden created by the opioid crisis, job and food insecurity, poverty and household dysfunction. Students cannot achieve academic success until their basic physiological needs are met, including access to adequate housing, food, health care and learning support. Teaching and learning cannot occur if students are experiencing trauma at home.
Throughout the past year, the West Virginia Department of Education championed increased resources from lawmakers for our schools to support students’ social, emotional and mental health needs. Participants in our “West Virginia’s Voice” listening tour overwhelmingly recognized the need for more resources to help overcome the challenges facing students. Thanks to Gov. Jim Justice’s leadership and the actions of the West Virginia Legislature, more than $30 million has been appropriated for counties to hire student support personnel, to assist students with social-emotional needs. This translates into approximately 400 additional positions statewide.
With the fundamental job of educating West Virginia’s students in mind, the WVDE is committed to building networks of support around educators who work tirelessly to meet the needs of their students. We are working closely with county-level staff members, as well as local educators and administrators to identify the greatest areas of need and strengthening multi-agency partnerships to build capacity for support for all students through initiatives such as ReclaimWV and Communities In Schools.
For 40 years, Communities In Schools has been a proven model that district leaders recognize as a critical component of successful school turnaround. CIS is the nation’s leading dropout-prevention organization, helping at-risk kids stay in school and prepare for life. The mission is to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life. Guided by first lady Cathy Justice’s vision, West Virginia recently launched the largest expansion for CIS, with the program operating in 11 counties and 59 schools beginning with this school year.
The ReclaimWV initiative is the department’s effort to foster statewide collaboration to combat the effects of the opioid crisis. The department has entered into a partnership with the West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources and a multitude of statewide organizations to expand capacity to address mental health issues. Through the initiative, we are working to advance school mental health policies and practices that are tailored to meet local strengths and needs.
Through ReClaimWV and CIS, students are connected to caring adults within their schools and communities who are equipped with the strategies to address their needs.
I cannot overstate how troubled I am by the multitude of factors that stand as roadblocks for West Virginia’s students.
However, as I said in a recent meeting with county superintendents, when it comes to increasing student achievement, we make no excuses. Our focus remains on building capacity of our schools and communities to provide for students’ needs, regardless of their circumstance. All students matter, and all students deserve our best.