Top K12 stories of 2016

Schools tackled crowdfunding, heroin abuse, transgender issues and more
By: | December 21, 2016

As we face a new year with a new president, Newsletter Editor Ariana Fine looked back on 2016 to consider the biggest and most influential stories in K12 education.

Will they continue to be important in 2017? Will school leaders find better solutions? Will we see improvements? Here is a sample of what she found and why they were so important.

Crowdfunding classrooms

Reduced local, state and federal revenues and lower property taxes left districts still hurting eight years after the Great Recession that officially kicked off in 2008.

As a result, teachers each spent an average of $500 of their own money in the 2015-16 school year on basic classroom supplies, such as paper, pencils and notebooks, according to Denver-based Agile Education Marketing.

So 2016 was an optimal year for crowdfunding for classrooms. Contributions to smaller-scale school fundraising efforts on two websites—GoFundMe and DonorsChoose—continued to grow dramatically from $31 million in 2010 to close to $140 million in 2015. Through last November, 60,000 DonorsChoose campaigns had collected nearly $106 million for the year.

Classroom supplies and books are the most common donations on DonorsChoose. But many teachers seek resources for tablets and for innovative seating to create collaborative learning spaces where students can move around.

A heroin hold

While student substance abuse appears to have decreased, the number of teenagers hospitalized for opioid overdoses skyrocketed in 2016.

The number of teenagers hospitalized for opioid poisoning each year surged from 3.7 in 1997 to more than 10.2 per 100,000 youths in 2012, says a study published in Pediatrics last October. More than 2,700 young adults (ages 15 to 24) and 64 children overdosed on opioids in 2014 alone, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last August, the Obama administration allocated $53 million in federal grants to help states fight the epidemic.

Additionally, school leaders have invited pharmacists to speak to students in classrooms about the dangers of prescription drugs. CVS Health pharmacists alone gave nearly 3,000 presentations in 40 states in the 2015-16 school year. And schools started to stock the emergency antidote Narcan in an effort to save students from dying from heroin overdoses on school grounds.

District leaders also offered emergency counseling and substance abuse prevention programs.

In November, the U.S. Surgeon General’s office released its first-ever report addressing alcohol, drugs and health. It reviews what experts know about substance misuse and how the nation can address this issue and the related consequences. It recommends that administrators offer screening, counseling, treatment and referrals to rehabilitation programs to help students.


Transgender bathrooms

The use of bathrooms became a big issue in public schools last year, prompted by the first lawsuit brought against a Virginia school district, filed by Gavin Grimm, a transgender male high school student. Lawsuits supporting and opposing transgender students’ permission to use the bathroom of their choice reached a number of courtrooms in 2016.

On a federal level, 23 states have challenged the Obama administration’s decision that the Title IX law banning sex discrimination in schools protects transgender students’ right to choose which bathrooms to use.

A federal judge in Texas ruled that an injunction sought by states opposing Obama’s decision did apply nationwide. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case involving nationwide policy in 2017.

On the other hand, 18 states allow students to use bathrooms based on their gender identity, and individual districts are allowed to make their own decisions.

Concussion prevention

While the NFL is taking head concussions seriously and benching players who have them, school district leaders are also being more careful with young brains.

Recent reports show a drastic uptick in youth concussions, with Blue Cross and Blue Shield claims alone growing by 71 percent between 2010 and 2015.

Increased awareness and subsequent overreporting of concussions the previous year may also have contributed to the decline in the number of concussions reported for 2015-16, according to a story in The Washington Post.

With a new study revealing that brain abnormalities can develop after head impacts sustained during just a single year of high school football, an increasing number of coaches nationwide are implementing new safety measures for football. They include:

safer techniques that encourage players to keep their heads up while tackling

helmets with high-tech impact sensors

limits on the amount of full-contact practice athletes are allowed each week

More than 20 states now require school coaches to receive training to recognize concussions in their players, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Virtual reality as learning tool

Interest in virtual reality is becoming an increasing reality in public schools as ed-tech companies offer more cost-effective devices, such as Google Expeditions and Facebook’s Oculus Rift.

A quarter of the 350 higher education and K12 schools surveyed, by Extreme Networks, which delivers networking solutions, reported to have used virtual reality. And last year, the federal ConnectED initiative provided more schools with the bandwidth needed to bring virtual reality learning to classrooms.

Schools, such as the charter school Washington Leadership Academy, use the technology to create virtual chemistry labs that are safer for children, enabling more in-depth experiments with riskier chemicals, according to Forbes.

But administrators must continue to gauge whether teachers can meld virtual reality components into their curricula in coming years.

Lead in our schools

Since news broke of lead contamination in Flint Public Schools in Michigan last spring, more districts are finding high lead levels in water from leaching pipes.

More than 2,000 communities across the United States have found elevated levels of lead, including in water fountains and taps of schools and preschools, according to a recent USA Today Network investigation.

Samples taken from one Maine elementary school showed lead levels to be 42 times higher than the EPA limit of 15 parts per billion, while another school in Ithaca, New York, saw its levels deemed as “hazardous waste” by the EPA.

No federal law requires testing in schools using public water systems, but states are stepping up. New legislation in New York, for example, mandates testing for lead contamination every five years.

Lead poisoning symptoms can include antisocial behavior, loss of appetite and learning difficulties.

Moving forward, administrators can test water more frequently and can install filters on water fountains and taps, both of which are solutions that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends. Long-term—and far more costly—solutions include replacing entire plumbing systems.

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