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Attending high-performing schools boosts health among poor LA minority children

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According to a new UCLA-led study, minority children in Los Angeles who attend high-performing schools are less likely to become involved in both risky and very risky health behaviors. The study was published online on July 21 in the journal Pediatrics.

The objective of the study was to determine whether exposure to high-performing schools could reduce the rates of risky health behaviors among low-income minority adolescents and, if a reduction was found, whether it was due to better academic performance, peer influence, or other factors. The investigators used a research known as a natural experimental study design; they investigated the random admissions lottery into high-performing public charter high schools in low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods.

The study group comprised 521 ninth- through twelfth-grade students who were offered admission through a random lottery (intervention group) and 409 students who were not offered admission (control group). The students were surveyed in regard to their health behaviors and the investigators reviewed the students’ state-standardized test scores. The purpose was to determine whether exposure to successful school environments leads to fewer risky (e.g., alcohol, tobacco, and drug use, as well as unprotected sex) and very risky health behaviors (e.g., binge drinking, substance use at school, risky sex, and gang participation).

The researchers noted that the intervention and control groups had similar demographic characteristics and eighth-grade test scores. They found that admission to a high-performing school (intervention effect) led to improved math and English standard test scores, greater school retention (91% vs, 76%), and lower rates of engaging in one or more very risky behaviors (0.73 risk (compared to 1)) but no difference in risky behaviors, such as any recent use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. School retention explained 58.0% of the intervention effect on engagement in very risky behaviors, and test scores explained 6.2% of the intervention effect on engagement in very risky behaviors.

The authors concluded that increasing performance of public schools in low-income communities may be a potent method to decrease very risky health behaviors among low-income adolescents and to decrease health disparities across the life span.

The researchers are affiliated with the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the RAND Corporation (Santa Monica, California), Act Inc. (Iowa City, Iowa), and Teachers College, Columbia University (New York, New York).

Take home message:

This study notes that attendance at a high-performing school can not only increase the likelihood of a student performing well academically but also decrease the chance of the student becoming involved in risky health behavior. Thus, this attendance can increase the likelihood of the student becoming a healthy, successful adult. Many parents choose their residence by the quality of the local school. Many parents also become involved in school organizations such as the PTA to improve the quality of their local school. Parents have been instrumental in encouraging local merchants to donate items such as computers to schools in their area. Unfortunately, risky health behavior exists at high-performing schools. Many of these schools are located in affluent areas where children have the funds to purchase drugs, alcohol, and tobacco products.