As a principal for 21 years, I take pride in supporting my students. I’m the kind of principal who knows where students work, how many points or goals they scored in their last game, what part they played in the musical and how well they did on their last test.
Maybe if our representatives got to know kids in their districts like this, they wouldn’t take away crucial resources that give them the chance to thrive.
Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced an education bill that would slash almost $15 billion from Title I funding, which supports our highest-need students. Given our post-pandemic challenges, it is time to increase funding, not impose draconian cuts that will harm our most vulnerable students.
For context, school leaders like me use Title I funds for a number of important programs, including reading and math instruction and providing support for English language learners, migrant students, homeless students and students who are at-risk of falling behind or dropping out.
In addition, it is becoming increasingly clear that our students are in the midst of a mental health crisis, which manifests itself in disengagement, truancy, aggressive behavior and substance use and abuse. We use our allocation of Title I funds to address this last issue through substance abuse prevention (SAP) services.
My high school, North Country Union, is located in the Northeast Kingdom (NEK), the most rural and largest geographic region of Vermont. The area is economically depressed, with the highest unemployment rate in the state and an economy reliant on tourism. Our isolation and economic hardship have contributed to a resilient, cooperative and self-reliant community spirit: As one farmer remarked after the catastrophic flooding this summer, “If you’re going to have a disaster, Vermont is definitely the place to have it.”
This sense of community is evident in our school programming as well. Our students know that they belong. They have access to and take pride in the many wonderful opportunities they have in the visual arts and athletics, and in their classes and programs at our career and technical education center.
Despite our on-going efforts to ensure that all of our students feel a genuine sense of belonging in our school, many continue to experience isolation and depression. Too often, these students turn to substances to “self-medicate” as a way of coping with their struggles. It is these students who would be most harmed by the proposed funding cuts.
Our SAP program changed, and in some cases likely saved, students’ lives.
Our SAP program moves away from the outdated model of suspending vulnerable students to “teach them a lesson,” which only further isolates them and reinforces the message that they don’t belong. The real work to address substance use in our schools and society comes in the form of relationships and services.
Our SAP services are available to all students, including those referred for use or possession of substance-related items and those who tell counselors they want help quitting. In our school of 700 students, our SAP program served 101 students last year — 53 referred by counselors or administrators and 48 who asked for help themselves.
Our SAP program has changed, and in some cases likely saved, students’ lives. Each student gets access to a trained SAP counselor, who helps them find alternatives to substance use, unpack stressors and factors that contribute to using and learn ways to manage peer pressure. The program also provides activities, assemblies, video promos and small-group instruction to educate all students on the dangers of using substances.
The SAP cost is just $700 per student served, not including the preventative measures that reach all 700 students in the school. This is money well-spent. Aside from fostering future societal health benefits, it is our legal and moral imperative to do whatever we can to help students overcome negative coping behaviors that have immediate and long-term impacts on their health and college and career prospects.
Yet it’s precisely programs like SAP that the House leadership appears all too willing to cut.
My conversations with colleagues show that North Country students are not the only ones dealing with mental health and substance use issues. Discussions with other education leaders in Vermont and from around the country revolve around similar challenges and searches for solutions. In fact, this anecdotal evidence is backed up by research: 80 percent of school leaders and 63 percent of students are concerned about drug use in their schools, a survey from the National Association of Secondary School Principals found.
My questions for the House leadership are these: Which students should we not support? Which services should we cut? And most importantly, don’t you have a moral imperative to support students in public schools across the country?
I am blessed with a committed school community, that includes amazing teachers and school board members, as well as talented students who, in their own ways, are begging for my help. I look forward to coming to school every day, in large part because we have programs like SAP that work and confirm my belief that we are making a difference in our students’ lives.
Congress should pass the bipartisan funding bill the Senate has proposed that would increase funding for Title I and avoid a protracted negotiation that would deny students access to critical resources. Absent that, or if it fails, the bill proposed by the House will most assuredly make a difference: unfortunately, it will be one that perpetuates existing inequities and creates more challenges for future generations to address.
Chris Young is the National Association of Secondary School Principals state coordinator, president-elect of the Vermont Principals Association and the 2023 NASSP Vermont Principal of the Year. He grew up in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and graduated from North Country Union High School in 1988.
This story about Title I funding was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.