State Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, applauded on Tuesday the state school superintendent's plans to beef up nonacademic support services for students in the coming year.

Superintendent Richard Woods said he wants to expand a program that connects kids in need with assistance such as mental health services, job opportunities, supplemental food and clothing. It's one of the priorities he presented Tuesday during joint House and Senate budget hearings.

"When you have a child who cannot learn because of so much else going on with their life, it's hard to process," Dempsey said. "But it's real and it's growing."

A federal grant allowed the state to put a wrap-around coordinator at each Regional Education Service Agency. But the program is limited, Woods said, and a state match would allow expansion into any school.

The initiative is part of what Woods called his "holistic, whole-child" approach to improving education in Georgia. To be effective, he said, schools must respond to how families have changed over the years.

"Education is not solely about the ABCs and the 123s ... Public education is about preparing our students for life, not a test," he told lawmakers.

Dempsey noted that most schools already have programs such as Backpack Buddies, which ensures children will have food at home on the weekends.

She also said Woods moved quickly to implement the Georgia Apex Program — a pilot program offering school-based mental health counseling — and the annual suicide-prevention training for educators mandated in legislation she authored in 2016.

Expanding wrap-around services is another worthy goal, she said.

"A student existing ... hiding issues, just trying to survive, can easily give up," Dempsey said.

But she also said that successful programs should be community partnerships that go beyond a RESA and school system. She held up as a model the Marietta City Schools' Student Life Center and encouraged state and local educators tour the facility for ideas.

The school system is partnering with over 20 local and state agencies to provide in-school services for students and their families. Targeted areas range from housing, food and employment to psychological counseling, tutoring and college admissions assistance.

"It has changed lives in so many ways," Dempsey said.

Woods said there are more than 1.7 million children in the public school system and an investment in them is an investment in the state's future.

Among his other budget priorities are school safety — to include students' mental health and building security — and a focus on the rural areas of the state. He's proposing a rural education tax credit for donations to the Georgia Foundation for Public Education.

"Parents would be encouraged to invest in their own communities," he said.

He also wants to "move away from the one-size-fits-all graduation approach" and offer opportunities in specialties such as computer science, personal finance, the fine arts and soft skills.

Woods also is asking for funding for state-level coordinators for mental health and school safety and for a military-school liaison to directly support JROTC students and the state's military families.

Joint budget hearings continue this morning with presentations from the courts, agricultural department, emergency management and homeland security, secretary of state, revenue department, behavioral health and developmental disabilities agency, economic development, Georgia Ports Authority and Gov. Brian Kemp.


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