How ‘Every Student Succeeds Act’ will benefit Central Pa. schools

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President Obama called it a "Christmas miracle." School districts across Pennsylvania are still waiting for theirs.

On Thursday, the President signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bipartisan bill and replacement for No Child Left Behind. It is the first major education reform in the United States since 2002.

ESSA will place more education power in the hands of individual states. It also explicitly suggests school districts begin to use their Title I federal funding money towards integrated student services, specifically in low-income districts with at-risk children.

However, schools throughout the commonwealth are unable to pay for these programs, as all Title I money for Pennsylvania, approximately $540,000,000 to be dispersed to the state's 500 school districts, is being held up and will not be released without a state budget in place.

"This is the first time in federal education law that has been outlined," said Jane Hess, Central Pennsylvania's program director at Communities In Schools, a national dropout prevention program. CIS currently operates in 12 Pennsylvania school districts, including Harrisburg and York. Their personal methods allow for tutoring, counseling, and even meals, along with other needs.

"The act just highlights and lets school districts know that this is a proven way and effective way to give their students the services they need," Hess said.

The Communities In Schools program is available to any school district -- Hess estimates it costs $65,000-$80,000 per on-site coordinator -- but only large school districts tend to have the necessary funding to use it. While ESSA will not increase the Title I funding for each school district, it does authorize the schools to spend their money specifically on integrated student services.

CIS is currently in discussions with "about a half-dozen" other Central Pennsylvania schools, Hess said, including Steelton-Highspire. Their acting superintendent, Travis Waters, says their menial federal funding total is only around $700,000 per year, which he estimates is barely enough to maintain the 100+ teachers working in the school district.

"A lot of times we feel like we are left out as far as some of the resources are concerned," Waters says. "Our kids need (the help) quite bad, honestly."

Steelton-Highspire has been in talks with CIS, but teaming up with their after-school program is not an immediate priority, Waters added. Keeping teachers while advocating for a state budget with a focus on more education funding continues to be Waters' focus at Steel High. However, while working with Communities In Schools may have been a dream under No Child Left Behind, the language in Every Student Succeeds gives Waters hope.

"It can open up opportunities for us," he admits. "Programs we may not be able to fund in our general budget, we may be able to fund through Title I. So, it will offer opportunities for our students and school district."

Thursday marked Day 163 in Pennsylvania without a state budget.

Many school districts across the commonwealth have started taking out loans to continue to pay for school programs.