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Investing in Social-Emotional Learning by Leveraging Federal Funds

Kristen Diamond November 8, 2021

Current federal funding for social-emotional learning is robust—even though SEL is not always directly mentioned in the programs schools use to pay for this vital education. 

The main source of federal funds for SEL initiatives is Essa’s Title IV-A, which was created with immense flexibility in mind. Even though Title IV-A doesn’t use the words “social-emotional learning,” it ensures that:

  • SEL can be embedded within the academic curriculum.
  • Students experience a safe, welcoming, and stress-free environment.
  • Technology is used appropriately within schools, and children are aware of how to safely navigate online. 

In the School Superintendents Association (AASA) webinar “More Than a Test Score: Leveraging Federal Dollars to Support Innovation in SEL Investments,” three panelists—including AllHere President and CEO Joanna Smith—started with a high-level overview and then drilled down to the day-to-day work of ensuring students’ social and emotional well-being. 

Funding that’s available now

“Since 2018, on an annual basis, the Title IV-A program has received a little over $1 billion per year,” said Ally Talcott, Executive Director of the Title IV-A Coalition, an advocacy group that focuses on federal funding for ESSA’s Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant program. 

Talcott emphasized that the current Title IV-A budget of $1.22 billion—in combination with several relief funds that Congress has approved to respond to the impact of COVID—provides many opportunities for schools to pay for SEL initiatives. The budget for Title IV-A is expected to climb again in fiscal year 2022, to around $1.3 billion. 

While districts appreciate bursts of funding like the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, ongoing investments are more effective in helping districts implement and maintain SEL programs. “Having the knowledge of what’s coming is so critical to us in terms of planning,” said Superintendent Dan Bridges of the Naperville Community United School District 203 in Illinois. 

Prior to COVID, Naperville 203 was working on implementation of a K-12 social-emotional learning curriculum focused on positive community and climate. Since then, Bridges said, the district has recognized an even greater need for health and wellness for its students—and for the larger community of adults surrounding them.

Naperville 203 is a high-achieving district with adequate local resources to dedicate to SEL—but, Bridges explained, even though federal funds make up only 4% of its budget, those are key funds for providing staff who specialize in SEL-related work. “Once some of this ESSR funding goes away, we’re really going to have to analyze how we will maintain the positions we’ve added,” he said.

Money isn’t everything when it comes to SEL

“AllHere supports over 8,000 schools on a national basis, and we’re hearing that the resource base to hire staff to support the mounting SEL needs is a challenge,” said Smith. 

“Even for the most expert counselors, social workers, and school psychologists, their capacity is crushed because of the magnitude of kids who needed help pre-COVID and who need help now,” she continued. “Technology is not a replacement for strong support infrastructure for kids and parents, but it is a way to augment it. It can save time for the most complex and meaningful interactions.”

AllHere’s mobile messaging solution supports families 24/7—both reactively and proactively. “This strong two-way communication between schools and families helps attend to students’ well-being,” Smith said. By streamlining routine communications, the chatbot frees school staff to focus on the highest-impact engagement and education activities. 

Next steps for district and school leaders

Talcott encouraged administrators to reach out to their Congressional delegation and explain how Title IV-A funds benefit their teachers and students. Title IV-A funding tends to have broad bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, and lawmakers appreciate hearing about the wide range of implementations and outcomes at schools in their Congressional districts. 

“A lot of our leaders don’t understand what it takes to plan these programs and implement them usefully,” Talcott said. “Your positive story about how valuable these dollars are makes a difference.”

At the district level, Smith reminded administrators that when they invest in support for SEL, whatever they add needs to relieve staff’s workload rather than adding to it—while still getting the right support to the right student at the right time. 

“A chatbot is able to take some of the pressure off staff and give families and outlet to ask questions and receive help in a method that works for them 24/7,” Smith said. “There are many texting platforms out there, but a platform like AllHere offers personalized, evidence-based help and support to address any school-related challenge.” 


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