Quality Schools May Reduce Risky Behavior

Children from low-income households face myriad ways to go off-track as they enter high school.

A new study performed through the University of California, Los Angeles, focused on the connection between attending a high school with rigorous academic standards and frequency of risky behavioral choices (such as gang membership and binge drinking).

Published in Pediatrics, this report looked into how academic environments may supersede some of the challenges associated with poverty.

Lottery sends disadvantaged kids to charter school

For their research, investigators selected participants who were high school kids from poor Los Angeles neighborhoods. Roughly half of the students (521) were admitted via state lottery into a better performing charter school while the rest of the students (409) were not. Researchers surveyed all of the students about behavior. They also compared scores on standardized tests given to all students.

Very risky behaviors and activities

“Risky behaviors” included alcohol use, tobacco use or use of marijuana during the past month. “Very risky” activity involved any of the following:

  • Consuming alcohol at school
  • Binging on alcohol (at least five drinks per episode)
  • Using a drug other than marijuana
  • Bringing a weapon into the school within the past month
  • Belonging to a gang during the previous year
  • Becoming pregnant
  • Have several sex partners
  • Engaging in unprotected sex
  • Engaging in sex after using alcohol or drugs within the last three months

Better schools — better grades and better behavior

At the end of their study, researchers found that the minority students (most were Latino) from lower-income households who entered top-performing public charter schools rose to the challenge and exhibited greater success on both fronts. The students earned higher scores on standardized testing in English and math and were also less likely than peers not admitted to the better schools to participate in very risky behaviors.

The study found that 36% of the student participants at charter schools took part in very risky activities while 42% of those not in charter schools engaged in those behaviors. Participation in behaviors labeled risky appeared to be about the same in both groups. Kids who changed schools or who dropped out of school also faced increased chances of participation in very risky activities.

What made the difference?

It could be that minds pressed to think harder and more critically make better decisions as a matter of course. It may be that such students are better informed about the health risks connected to certain behaviors. On the other hand, better choices may be more related to a change of environment. Students in high-performing schools may be surrounded with more positive peer pressure and a stronger sense of personal ability to achieve, which protects them from making more destructive choices. Of course, opportunity may also be a contributing factor. Students in demanding academic environments may simply have less free time in which to participate in risky behaviors because studying occupies a greater portion of their after-school hours.

Study limitations

The study faced several limitations. The narrow minority sample (almost entirely Latino) is one weakness. Most of the students admitted to a public charter school entered just one school. Extrapolating the results to any charter school could be unwarranted. And although the study tracked students, school quality, behaviors and academic performance, the study does not conclusively differentiate between whether the school environment or home (poverty) environment was more influential in determining high risk behavior.

A possible solution

Still, the Pediatrics study suggests that placing charter schools in poorer neighborhoods could narrow the educational chasm that currently exists between rich and poor students. And that, in turn, could positively impact the amount of high-risk behavior embarked upon by low-income students.

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