Safe learning environment sorely needed in US schools

Throughout my career, first as a high school teacher and then as a congressman, the education of our children has always been one of my highest priorities. Since I entered the U.S. House of Representatives, I have participated in several reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). In the past, we have come together in a bipartisan way to improve our educational system for our children, and this year will be no exception. As we continue to move forward with the latest reauthorization, we must go beyond simply addressing the academic needs of our students; we must focus on the development of the whole child.

This broader approach helps create a safe and secure learning environment for our students, something sorely needed in far too many schools. About 7,000 students drop out of school each day. Last year, more than 75 percent of schools reported a violent act. We have no choice but to do better. Indeed there are proven methods for improving school attendance, behavior and engagement, such as social and emotional learning programs, quality after school programs, greater opportunity to gain college credit and a generally well-rounded curriculum including arts, civics and history.

Unfortunately, in this challenging economy, many of these initiatives are being left by the wayside as budgets are squeezed. Curricula are being narrowed, and children are missing out on important subjects and learning experiences. This is depriving our children of opportunities to gain the 21st century skills of creative thinking and problem solving necessary for successful lives.

That is why I introduced H.R. 4223, the Academic, Social and Emotional Learning Act. This bipartisan legislation will expand access to social and emotional learning (SEL) programs that teach skills such as problem solving, conflict resolution, responsible decision-making and relationship building. SEL programs have a proven record of not only improving academic performance, but reducing problem behavior such as alcohol and drug use, violence, truancy and bullying. These provisions are directly in line with the administration’s goals for a Safe, Successful and Healthy Students program within ESEA and should be included in the reauthorization.

However, the need for quality learning opportunities does not end when the school bell rings at the end of the day. After-school programs provide a critical service to our children and families, not only providing educational opportunities, but necessary supervision while parents are at work. Indeed the hours between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. are prime opportunities for unsupervised children to get into trouble. Many working or job-seeking parents have little choice but to leave their children alone, making them vulnerable for drugs and alcohol, gangs, teen pregnancy and other harmful behaviors.

After-school programs have proven results to combat these problems. Teachers in my home state of Michigan reported that approximately 70 percent of students who regularly attend 21st century Community Learning Centers showed improvement in classroom behavior, participation and homework quality. These kinds of programs help turn our schools into community centers that provide safe environments where learning happens all day.

Unfortunately, the demand for these programs far exceeds the availability. According to a 2009 Afterschool Alliance survey, more than 15 million children are unsupervised in the afternoons, and parents of more than 18 million kids would enroll their child in after school if a program were available. At a time when so many working families are struggling to make ends meet and provide child care, we need to expand after-school programs. Eight years ago, the reauthorization of ESEA included a bipartisan commitment to quality after-school programs. It is critical we reaffirm that commitment to our children this year.

We must also do more to keep children engaged and help them achieve a post-secondary degree. The United States has one of the highest dropout rates of any industrialized nation — nearly half of African American students and 40 percent of Latino students attend high schools where the majority of students do not graduate. Dual enrollment and early college programs have a proven track record of putting kids on the path to post-secondary success.

These programs enable students to earn an associate’s degree or up to two years of transferable college credits at no cost to their families while still in high school. That is why I joined my colleague Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) to introduce the Fast Track to College Act, which establishes new early college high schools and other dual enrollment programs.

As our world continues to evolve and become increasingly globalized, our educational system must keep up and provide our children with the necessary skills to succeed. As Chairman of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, which will play a leading role in the reauthorization, I will work to ensure our educational system focuses on the whole child, to ensure the next generation has the necessary skills to succeed.

Kildee is the chairman of the subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education.