A new study has found that when minority teens from low-income families began attending high-performing public charter high schools, they were much less likely to engage in risky health behaviors, compared to peers who were not admitted into those schools. They also scored significantly higher on state standardized math and English tests.
The new study, led by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is the first to examine whether the quality of education influences students’ risky health behaviors.
“These students’ higher cognitive skills may lead them to better health literacy and decision-making. They may be exposed to less negative peer pressure, and the school environment may promote the resilience that steers them away from these risky behaviors,” said lead investigator Dr. Mitchell Wong, a professor of medicine in the division of general internal medicine and health services research.
“In addition, in a better academic environment students spent more time studying, leaving them less time to engage in risky behaviors.”
The researchers divided risky behaviors into two categories: risky and very risky. “Risky behavior” was defined as any use of tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana within the past 30 days.
“Very risky behavior” included the following: binge drinking, alcohol use in school, use of any drug other than marijuana, carrying a weapon to school, gang membership, pregnancy, multiple sex partners, sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and sex without the use of contraceptives.
For the study, the researchers compared two groups of high school students from low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles: the first group included 521 students who were offered admission to high-performing public charter schools through the district lottery, and the second group included 409 students who were not. The researchers compared the students’ health behaviors and standardized test scores.
Students who attended the high-performing schools performed much better on standardized tests. Furthermore, significantly fewer charter school students (36 percent versus 42 percent of those who did not attend charter schools) engaged in “very risky behaviors.”
Students who changed schools or dropped out were more likely to engage in the “very risky behaviors.” There was no significant difference found between the two groups for “risky behaviors,” such as alcohol and marijuana use.
The researchers believe that putting successful public charter high schools in low-income neighborhoods can have beneficial health effects and could help close the growing academic achievement gap between wealthy and low-income students.
The study is published in the journal Pediatrics.