Nashville Metro Councilmember at Large Zulfat Suara led a Wednesday press conference to weigh in on Mayor John Cooper’s pending budget for the coming fiscal year. Her ask? Suara wants Cooper to include additional funding for Metro Nashville Public Schools to help children recover from severe traumas experienced over the past year due to environmental disasters.
Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH), a faith-led coalition of community organizers, wants Cooper to include several million dollars to implement social-emotional learning programs (SEL) in all of MNPS schools as a way to counteract adverse childhood experiences (ACEs.) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list ACEs as factors that have a great impact on future violence perpetration and victimization and that can eventually lead children to enter the criminal justice system.
Suara, who ran for office in 2019 on an education platform, said that many children physically returning to schools may have lost homes and loved ones to floods, tornadoes and COVID-19, which all hit Tennessee over the span of a year.
She was joined by District 5 Councilmember Sean Parker, who also supports the proposal.
SEL programs are designed to help school children process difficult situations and emotions. Students learn to regulate behaviors and get other important tools that they will carry into adulthood.
“They’re bringing all this back,” said Suara, who adds that SEL could teach them the skills they need to deal with the trauma.
NOAH advocates said that Tennessee’s current education funding formula, known as the Basic Education Program (BEP), provides inadequate funding to districts across the state, and more emphasis needs to be placed on meeting children’s emotional needs.
The group is asking for $5.8 million for advocacy centers and specialists in advocacy centers in elementary schools and $2 million for restorative practice assistants in middle and high schools.
NOAH spokesperson Dawana Wade addressed issues that existed in Metro schools before the pandemic. Studies have shown that the connection between schools and prisons, known as the “school to prison pipeline,” begins when children are taken out of class as a punishment. In the 2019-2020 school year, Black students were three-times more likely to be suspended. Many of these children end up failing to graduate, limiting their options for jobs that pay living wages, and potentially end up in prison. It all starts in the schools, said Wade.
“When they become involved in the criminal justice system, it’s much harder to get them back into schools consistently,” she said.
Funding for SEL programs will include additional training for teachers, but Wade said the extra work won’t be a burden on teachers. The program will provide additional tools for teachers, along with supportive school advocates.
“Our belief is that if the culture of the school is supportive and focused on helping students to be successful, then the teachers have an easier job,” said Wade.
NOAH stated in a press release that inadequate funding for Metro schools caused social and emotional learning to be neglected, and implementing SEL programs will decrease suspensions and eliminate racial disparities in suspensions within the MNPS school system.
“We as a city have to support that infrastructure and we have to keep it going,” said Parker.
Cooper is expected to announce his budget priorities on Thursday at the annual State of Metro address.