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Virginia Journal of Education

 The Door is Open

Seizing ESSA’s opportunities for Virginia students and educators. 


By Christine DonFrancesco

Greek mythology tells the story of Kairos, the young, beautiful, and fleeting god of Opportunity. A sculptor depicted him as a swift runner with winged feet, deftly balancing on a sharp edge. He promises much if captured, but holding on to him is tricky. And when he passes by, not even the all-powerful Zeus can bring him back.

For educators, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA) is our Kairos—an opportune moment to raise our voices on behalf of students and to have a meaningful and even historic impact. If we act now, we can affect what ESSA will mean in schools throughout Virginia. 

At its heart, ESSA is about civil rights, racial and social justice, and equity, because its mission is to make sure that all children—regardless of where they live, how much money their families have, what language they speak, what religion they practice, or anything else—have access to a high-quality education.

Association members have been involved in drafting state plans to implement ESSA; VEA members contributed to Virginia’s plan, which was submitted to the U.S. Department of Education last September. Now the action is shifting to the local level, bringing opportunities to offer ideas and to insist that students have the support and tools they need. This is our chance to make sure educators’ voices are part of every piece of ESSA that’s put into place.  

It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity. To ensure that it doesn’t slip away, here’s a to-do list for making the most of this new law:

Become familiar with Virginia’s plan. You can find out more about your state plan by visiting, NEA’s online headquarters for ESSA implementation.

The Virginia plan has a seven-year timeframe for making significant progress in closing academic achievement gaps, and will use four indicators to measure that progress: (1) reading and math assessments; (2) graduation rate; (3) a statewide indicator for middle and elementary schools; and (4) English language proficiency. A fifth indicator, called the “student success” indicator, helps provide a more holistic snapshot into Virginia students’ performance, and Virginia has chosen chronic absenteeism to use here. Consider what indicators you think would be most effective in your schools and begin advocating for them. You may want to check NEA’s Opportunity Dashboard and perhaps look at other states for inspiration. The Opportunity Dashboard is also on, and some examples of other indicators include student access to counselors and other specialized support professionals; family and community engagement; and mentoring/induction programs for new educators.

Assert your voice in local teaching and learning decisions. While you won’t see the term “educator voice” mentioned in ESSA itself, the law does require “stakeholder consultation.” It doesn’t specify how to meet that requirement, so we can seize the opportunity for our students by making sure that we define “stakeholder consultation” to mean the authentic incorporation of educator voice into how ESSA will work locally. NEA/VEA strongly encourages members to assemble local ESSA implementation teams now, if you haven’t already done so. (You can find helpful information on this in the ESSA Online Toolkit on the VEA website, We need all hands on deck to identify opportunity gaps and figure out how to close them. 

Assess what’s happening now in your schools by using the School Checklist. The point of the checklist is to assess whether, given Virginia’s plan, students and educators at your school have everything they need. You can find plenty of suggestions of what to look for on Specific questions you might consider include: Do students have access to a well-rounded curriculum that will prepare them for life after graduation? Do students feel safe and respected? Are all staff members prepared and excited to help students excel? The School Checklist is a great way to get the conversation started, and you can share it with parents, community members, and even your students to get their feedback. 

Dig a little deeper and do a full-blown Opportunity Audit. The Opportunity Audit, soon to be available at, involves a more detailed inventory of the services, resources, and personnel at your school. Conduct the Audit with your colleagues and drill down to discuss problem areas and decide what data, strategies, and resources are required to close opportunity gaps.

Don’t forget to “formalize” your voice to make sure your input is included in decisions. Become an active member of your local ESSA implementation team and if your local association hasn’t formed one yet, help start one! This group of member leaders can work with families and community members to advocate for school board resolutions, school policies, memoranda of understanding, and other formal documents that reflect your ideas.

You’ll also need to be aware of four different areas of ESSA that can make a big difference: the District Plan, District Report Card, Comprehensive School Improvement Plan for those schools identified for improvement, and Schoolwide Program Plan for schools with high percentages of economically-disadvantaged students. 

It’s critical to work with the entire education community—students (as appropriate), parents and families, faith-based organizations, community stakeholders, policymakers, and all educators (ESPs, teachers, school psychologists, social workers, nurses, etc.)—to get the most authentic, holistic assessment and ensure broad support to achieve your goals.

District Plans must be developed in partnership with stakeholders and approved by the state. Contribute to your district plan and help define how the district will improve learning conditions, increase parent and family engagement, carry out school improvement, and implement a well-rounded instruction plan. 

District Report Cards must indicate schools identified for improvement, and why they were identified. These report cards also provide a great snapshot of equitable access to qualified teachers and administrators in schools across the district and the state.  

Comprehensive School Improvement Plans are developed by schools in the lowest-performing 5 percent; have graduation rates below 67 percent; or are unable to meet TSI exit criteria for a state-determined number of years, generally up to four. These schools must develop a needs-assessment-based plan in collaboration with stakeholders and the school division, and this plan must be approved by the school, school division, and state.  

Schoolwide Program Plans are developed by schools where at least 40 percent of students are enrolled in Free and Reduced-Price Meal programs. These schools must develop a plan, with one year, that may include areas such as professional development, specialized instructional support services, additional learning time, advanced courses, a preschool program, and school-based mental health services. It must also be approved by the school, division, and state.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 ushered in a wealth of opportunities for students across America. Today, the Every Student Succeeds Act is poised to build upon that work by promoting equity in our nation’s public schools. Because you’re working in education at this historic time, you have a chance to become the stuff of legends—the heroes and heroines who capture Kairos and close opportunity gaps for our students. 

Someone will make decisions about what the law means in your schools and districts. You know your students best, so shouldn’t that “someone” be you?

DonFrancesco is a senior policy analyst in NEA’s Education Policy and Practice Department, and a former educator. 


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