Updated: Jun 15, 2021
When it comes to Texas schools most communities don’t struggle to name the head football coach or the athletic director. It’s understandable - sports are an important topic when it comes to Texas communities. But school leaders or community leaders oftentimes struggle to name who is leading the School Health Advisory Council (SHAC) of their local school district. Who leads your district’s SHAC? This is usually one of the first questions that are asked to people who call about wanting to start a teen pregnancy prevention program at their district.
Let’s start by understanding what a SHAC is and why they exist. Under Texas law, “the Board of Trustees of each school district shall establish a local school health advisory council to assist the district in ensuring that local community values are reflected in the district’s health education instruction" (Texas Education Code, Title 2, Subtitle F, Chapter 28, Subchapter A, §28.004). The state of Texas also requires that most of the members of the council should be parents but not employed by the district. The SHAC, acting as an advisory committee for the school board, makes recommendations on many topics regarding health education. Once it has recommendations ready, the SHAC then moves forward to presenting to the school board for final approval through a vote.
The state requires that each SHAC meet at least four times a year. The commitment to SHAC meetings in school districts across the state varies: some school districts make it a priority to plan their meetings from the beginning of the school year and continuously invite parents to attend, other school districts struggle to have people commit to administering meetings and attend SHAC meetings.
SHAC participation and support reflects the inequities in school funding across the state and housing segregation.
For smaller rural communities in Texas, attendance and commitment can be difficult due to a smaller population. Community members may not feel they have the background or are equipped to be part of the council and will refrain from participating. The reality is many rural communities have families that often have to work multiple jobs, and even if they wanted to attend SHAC meetings, they can’t due to their work commitments.
Urban communities, while more densely populated, are generally comprised of working families and parents. SHAC meeting times, such as during the workday, do not enable parents with less flexible jobs to attend meetings. Evening SHAC meetings may exclude parents who are the sole childcare provider for their family and may take parents away from duties such as preparing dinner and assisting with homework. Support such as weekend meeting times, childcare, and meals would enable more parents to fully participate in SHACs.
To be clear, the lack of parent participation in rural and urban SHACs is the result of the lack of support for parents and families, not the lack of interest or desire.
Communities with access to higher populations and wealth, such as suburban areas, have an advantage when it comes to SHAC support and participation. With a wider range of people, individuals may feel more equipped to be part of the SHAC and give recommendations to the council regarding health programs for their district. In the case of a suburban Texas SHAC with whom Healthy Futures of Texas has worked with, parent participants included an individual who worked for the Health Department, a community college president, and a parent who was part of the local police force.
After observing numerous meetings, it is clear that school districts need to have more support on how to run an effective SHAC. As a result of school funding in Texas, smaller or less funded districts may not have the personnel to fully support a SHAC and members. Fully supported SHACs can have a positive impact students in the community, and while the Department of State and Health Services developed a guide for SHACs in 2015, it is now 2020, and needs for our youth have entirely changed.
When board members work hard to create a strong SHAC, they can effectively discuss topics like teen pregnancy prevention and instruction on healthy lifestyles and mental health. Effective conversations and community input can significantly impact the lives of the youth in the communities and move the district in a positive direction.
Changes to sex education can take a great amount of time and effort, and it all starts with the SHAC. SHAC members have the power to understand the problems their community and the district is facing and find ways to improve the issues by reviewing programs that can reduce teen pregnancy, promote healthy nutrition, and support mental health, helping students learn how to make healthier decisions.
Monica Rivera serves as the Director of School District Health Initiatives for Healthy Futures of Texas, primarily helping school districts across Texas adopt, train, and implement Big Decisions. She’s an immigrant, proud big sister, and appreciates family time.
Veronica Ray Whitehead is the Director of Programs for the North Texas Alliance to Reduce Unintended Pregnancy in Teens (Ntarupt), overseeing the implementation their Tier 1 grant from OPA to effectively implement effective programs. She is a two time TEDx speaker, avid reader and maker of hand embroidery.