Kids at high-performing charter schools make better health decisions: study

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[August 09, 2014]  By Daniel Gaitan

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Low-income teenagers who attended high-performing charter schools engaged in fewer risky behaviors and performed better on standardized tests, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics.

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles sought to determine whether-or-not high-performing charter schools had an effect on the behaviors of low-income minority teens.

In one of the first studies of its kind, the researchers surveyed more than 500 ninth through 12th graders in Los Angeles who attended charter schools in low-income neighborhoods (where they had won admission through a random lottery), plus more than 400 students who attended other local schools. The researchers asked them about their "risky" and "very risky" behaviors.

Recent use of products containing tobacco, alcohol and marijuana were defined as risky. Less common behaviors such as binge drinking, drug use (excluding marijuana), gang membership, pregnancy and sex with multiple partners were defined as very risky.

Nearly 36 percent of students who attended a high-performing charter school engaged in one or more very risky behaviors, compared with 42 percent of students surveyed at the other schools.

"A substantial body of evidence has shown a strong link between education and health. This link suggests that improving the education may lead to many societal benefits including better health and reduction in health disparities," said lead researcher Dr. Mitchell Wong, a professor of medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine and Health Services Research at UCLA, in an email to Reuters Health. "It is important for parents to know that choosing better schools may also have beneficial health consequences for their child."

Students attending the high-performing charter schools also did better on standardized tests than those who did not attend them, and they were less likely to drop-out or transfer.

The researchers suggest better academic achievements helped to discourage students from taking risks that could harm their success. "Future studies will need to determine if the effects are long lasting or can be observed in other populations and school settings," they write

But there was no significant difference in the more common risky behaviors between the two groups, findings that surprised even Wong.

"So we were surprised not to see a reduction in more casual use of alcohol and other substances and in unprotected sex. One explanation for this lack of finding may be that students in these schools still remain in the same neighborhood and are thus still exposed to opportunities to engage in somewhat risky behaviors," he said.

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Colleen Cicchetti, a pediatric psychologist with Northwestern University's Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago, said she found the study "exciting," and hopes it will get more health care providers and policy makers talking about education and its role in public health.

"I see this as a good, critical first step and a way to get educators and health care people highlighting that we can do things for kids in schools that will affect their health outcomes, even in high school," Cicchetti, who was not involved with the study, told Reuters Health. "What kinds of things are happening that are getting these kids on a better trajectory? Is it just that they happen to be in a charter school? What makes these charter schools different?"

Wong said the study was not intended to be an evaluation of charter schools, but an examination of successful schools' impact on student health.

"The reason we chose charter schools was simply because their random admission lottery would allow us to conduct a natural experiment and compare students who were accepted to the school with those who were not accepted. Obviously, randomizing students to different schools would not be feasible," he said.

Charter schools receive public funding and are designed to have more autonomy over their curriculum than other local public schools.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, July 21, 2014.

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