How A Good Education Can Actually Improve Poor Students’ Health

A recent study may have confirmed what public health and education advocates have long tried to argue: a positive and supportive school environment improves the health of children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, ultimately increasing their academic performance.

That’s because when students from impoverished neighborhoods attend high-performing schools, they participate in risky behaviors less often than their counterparts enrolled in low-performing schools, according to a study conducted by University of California, Los Angeles researchers.

“Our study looks at how high performing schools affect the behaviors of adolescents,” Dr. Mitchell Wong, the lead author of the study, said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “Other studies have compared adults who have graduated from high school with adults that have not graduated from high school.”

Wong’s study followed 1,000 students in grades 10 through 12 who applied to Los Angeles’ three best charter schools via a lottery system between 2007 and 2010. Data collected from online questionnaires found that the pool of students attending the charter schools of their choice engaged in risky behavior — including binge drinking, unprotected sex, and use of drugs other than marijuana — at a rate nearly 10 percentage points lower than the students who attended other schools in the region. Plus, members of the charter school group ultimately scored higher on standardized tests and dropped out at a rate 14 percentage points lower than that of students in the other group.


While Wong said the findings, which were published in the Pediatrics journal this week, do not specifically make a case for charter schools, one can argue that the data presented supports years of research that draws connections between a healthy academic environment and the increased academic performance of students.

For example, a 2009 report compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that high schools can ultimately improve attendance, reduce risky behavior, and mitigate students’ emotional or mental health issues by working on improving their academic performance. The report recommended improving students’ communication with teachers, counselors, and school administrators, as well as using tutoring and enrichment programs to help students to strengthen their math and reading skills.

Access to healthy food sources also plays a vital role in a child’s chances of academic success — especially if that child lives in a food desert, defined as a neighborhood with few, if any, affordable healthy food choices. A 2013 report by Action for Healthy Kids, a public-private partnership of more than 50 organizations committed to promoting children’s health, showed that children who started their day with a nutritious breakfast and later engaged in an hour of physical activity increased their cognitive ability and improved their disposition toward school.

There’s been some recent progress in the policy in this area. The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to hold schools more accountable to the health of their students by requiring them to serve fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains and fibers. That change in the nutrition standards, according to Action for Healthy Kids’ report, extended access to healthy meals for more than 16 million children from low-income homes across the United States.

Without those type of policies in school, many of the children in Los Angeles may be more likely to skip breakfast in the morning, lose interest in school, and pick up detrimental habits, ultimately making their academic pursuits much more difficult. The recent UCLA study opens the door for conversations about how America best ensures equality of opportunity to the most vulnerable members of the population — particularly as GOP congressional members want to weaken nutritional guidelines outlined under the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act for the sake of saving dollars.