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'Texas children are suffering': Calallen ISD board asks TEA to prioritize mental health over standardized testing

"The fact that their child passed the STAAR means very little to a parent that has lost their child to suicide or a school shooting," board members said in a letter.

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — "How many more students must die for TEA to prioritize student mental health?"

That is a question the Calallen ISD Board of Trustees asked the Commissioner of Education, Mike Morath, in a letter to Texas Education Agency (TEA) legislators. The letter, dated June 13 and released by the district on July 19, was written in the wake of the Uvalde massacre where 19 students and 2 teachers were killed by a gunman. 

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The Calallen ISD board wants a complete re-evaluation of the priorities in the Texas education system, the letter states, specifically moving funds away from standardized testing to help with student mental health and teacher retention. 

"Texas children are suffering, while TEA continues to push forward with a technology and data drive agenda," the letter states.

Texas officials signed four-year agreements totaling $388 million with two companies to develop and administer its controversial State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exams for public school students until 2024. The Calallen board said that money can be better spent elsewhere. 

"All schools need more licensed therapists, support staff and education for our teachers," the letter said. "The fact that their child passed the STAAR means very little to a parent that has lost their child to suicide or a school shooting."

In June 2022, Texas leaders announced that they have agreed to dedicate $105.5 million in state funds to boost school safety and mental health services following the Uvalde massacre, according to a report by the Texas Tribune. Half of that money will go toward bulletproof shields for officers. 

"These impersonal priorities remove the very thing our children need the most- personal connections and relationships," the letter said. 

RELATED: Texas Education Agency commissioner Mike Morath talks teacher staffing, book banning, STAAR tests and more issues the statewide education system faces

"We cannot stand by any longer and continue to accept the projected path of Texas education. The Texas education system needs to be restructured with a new focus on student health, a return to community decision-making and correcting teachers salaries. Texas students deserve better." 

Corpus Christi Fire Marshal Randy Paige, whose son attended Calallen ISD and died by suicide in 2015 said there was a lot of truth to the letter.

"I didn't know that there was $900 million spent by the state on testing, which is ridiculous. I think that money should be focused on teachers and mental health of students," Paige said.

Calallen ISD has counselors on every campus as a mental health resource. Paige said the campus still goes to him to honor his son's memory as well as to continue the discussion of mental health awareness. 

"After Colton passed away, the school out there, in partnership with them through our walks and different things, they have stepped up," Paige said. "At least talking about suicide awareness and mental health."

First-year superintendent Emily Lorenz said now is the time to address the TEA's funding priorities. She wants to see safety, school security and mental health at the forefront.

"I believe the voice of the board members, they represent our community," Lorenz said, "and they really felt that this was important for them to voice as they believe that we need to support and prioritize the needs of our students and staff in education.

As a superintendent, Lorenz knows student performance is incredibly important, but she said the district also works to prioritize creating well-rounded citizens outside their walls; another reason she's hoping to see better-balanced TEA funding.

"We're not against state testing, I think it's just creating a more equitable system and bringing awareness to some of those additional needs that maybe aren't funded at such a high level," Lorenz said.

Read the letter in full below. 

Credit: Calallen ISD
Credit: Calallen ISD

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