Why Are Children Underperforming in School? A Comprehensive Needs Assessment of Students in Harris County
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Education can be the great equalizer, providing opportunities to break generational cycles of poverty and to obtain economic mobility. And so the question becomes, why do some students succeed in school and others do not? While the answer is complex, research demonstrates that factors outside of the educational system have a significant influence on academic performance, particularly for children living in poverty. This knowledge has led to a national shift toward supporting the whole child. Determining what factors affect which children is a critical first step in developing equitable solutions that help all children have an opportunity for educational attainment. This project is intended to provide specific data on the needs of children within a diverse population of students; to identify the characteristics of children with social, emotional, and health needs; and to better understand how those needs impact academic performance so they can be applied to school districts across the country. In the 2018-2019 school year, we surveyed 20,055 students in grades four through 12, and 8,772 of their parents, in 80 schools throughout Harris County. We measured mental and behavioral health, physical health, modes of transportation, access to health care, neighborhood safety issues, social needs, housing conditions, school performance, school climate, social support, and parental engagement.
The results of the needs assessment demonstrate that a significant number of students in Harris County have experienced food insecurity, bullying, school mobility, neighborhood violence, and depression. All of these factors correlate with poor academic outcomes. One of the most significant factors impeding a child’s ability to succeed in school, and that could have a lifelong impact on his or her well-being, is depression. Of the schools surveyed for this study, one out of six students screened positive for depression across all grade levels. Neighborhood violence correlated with depression (p<.001), and 11% of high school students and 13% of middle school students reported witnessing a shooting or murder in their neighborhood in their lifetime. Bullying is also correlated with depression, and 20% of high school, 27% of middle school, and 35% of elementary school students reported being bullied. Access to mental health services for students was limited, with three-quarters of high school students unable to see a mental health professional within the 12 months that preceded the survey.
The needs of children in Harris County are vast and did not develop overnight. It is well established that adverse events during early childhood set children on a trajectory for poor outcomes, and this was validated in our research. As one principal said, “By the time I see these children in kindergarten, they already have so many issues it feels like it’s too late.” Thus, by identifying the diverse needs of students in Harris County, policymakers, school districts, nonprofits, and community advocates have an opportunity to develop strategies and funding priorities that support early childhood development—which in turn will foster healthy brain development and build resilience in children, allowing them to succeed despite the external challenges they face when entering school. This report reflects the diversity and numerous needs of students in Harris County, the third largest county in the United States. Our findings can be broadly used to better understand which needs of the child are not being met under current systems of support, and to develop solutions so that every child has an opportunity to succeed.