How healthy is your community?

This is part 1 of a 4-part series on how a diverse set of school opportunities can IMPACT communitY health.

What does “healthy” look like? In a series over the next few weeks, we will consider the ways neighborhoods and schools play a role in overall well-being. Research shows that neighborhoods and schools are social determinants of “healthy people.” In this series, we will focus on research measuring certain health factors in communities - adolescent reproductive health, crime, safety, and mental health. The stories we share will focus on circumstances where giving people access to better educational opportunities has changed their overall health (and thanks to Corey DeAngelis and others who recently shared these studies).

WHAT’S A SOCIAL DETERMINANT?

The US Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion explains the “social” determinants of health in this way:

Health starts in our homes, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities...Our health is also determined in part by access to social and economic opportunities; the resources and supports available in our homes, neighborhoods, and communities; the quality of our schooling; the safety of our workplaces; the cleanliness of our water, food, and air; and the nature of our social interactions and relationships. The conditions in which we live explain in part why some Americans are healthier than others and why Americans more generally are not as healthy as they could be (emphasis mine).

Due to our system of assigning students to schools based on their residential neighborhood, neighborhoods and schools are deeply connected to one another, creating complex problems. As described above, where people live can be a strong determining factor in their health, and the assigned school system plays a large part in separating the “healthy neighborhoods” from the “unhealthy ones.” When politicians draw school boundaries, they encourage economically advantaged populations to move to neighborhoods assigned to better schools, ultimately creating a cycle where certain neighborhoods become “healthier” than others.

WEEK ONE: MEASURING “HEALTHY” USING REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH

One indicator of community well-being is adolescents’ reproductive health. To quote the CDC, “Teen pregnancy and childbearing bring substantial social and economic costs through immediate and long-term impacts on teen parents and their children,” meaning less teen pregnancy is a step toward health equity in many communities. The CDC also points out that although individual behavioral change is important, research shows where teens live and go to school can play a big role in their reproductive health.

But what if people are stuck in unhealthy neighborhoods that have low-quality assigned schools? What if they can’t afford to move to better neighborhoods and schools, or they can’t pay for better private education? What then? According to two recent studies, allowing families more freedom to pick where their children attend school can affect the reproductive health of adolescents (and ultimately, their communities).

In one study, receiving a scholarship to attend a private school rather than attending an assigned school cut the number of paternity suits for students by 38%. Similarly, another study concluded that receiving the opportunity to attend a charter school cut teen pregnancy by 59%.

Why would having more autonomy to choose one’s school affect reproductive health? There may be multiple reasons, but research on adolescent reproductive health points to one indicator: students who have a strong connection to school and higher achievement are associated with delayed sexual intercourse. When a student is excited about the opportunities that a school provides, instead of a family simply accepting that the child must attend whatever school they have been assigned to, there is less likelihood of student and family disengagement. It seems simple, but the more interested and enthusiastic a student is in school and the more involved in the school culture, the healthier and the more positive impact the school can have on a teen’s well-being.

So, consider the repercussions of school assignment on the health of our communities, and join us next week for a conversation on school assignments, crime and community health.