New research: student well-being higher in diverse schools

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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A study by University of California Los Angeles researchers published in the journal Child Development on Tuesday finds that students who attend more racially- and ethnically-diverse schools report less vulnerability, loneliness, insecurity and bullying.

“There’s more of a balance of power in these diverse schools,” said report co-author Sandra Graham.

The study polled nearly 6,000 sixth graders in 26 middle schools, mostly in Los Angeles County. The student population of 11 of the schools was dominated by one ethnic or racial group. In nine of the schools, two ethnic or racial groups made up most of the student body, and in six of the schools the student population was composed of several ethnic or racial groups in roughly equal proportions.

In the more diverse schools, “kids have more opportunity to have cross-race friendships and then they become protective," Graham said. "So if you’re in a diverse school and you’ve made friends with people from different racial and ethnic groups then they help protect you, they help introduce you to kids in their ethnic, racial group, there’s more opportunities to find your niche and fit in."

Student populations in schools, she said, are becoming more racially and ethnically segregated while California’s population is becoming more diverse.

The students at Arcadia High School are 64 percent Asian, for example, while 79 percent of students at Corona del Mar High School are white. At Huntington Park High School, 97 percent of students are Latino.

The study’s findings shed light on the potentially harmful effect that disconnect may be having on students and the shock that some students in less diverse schools may face when they move to more diverse places and enter a workplace with diversity very unlike their schools.

Some schools with lopsided ethnic and racial enrollments are using character education and other methods to prepare students for the diversity they’ll encounter after they receive their high school diploma.

“Our 'Character Counts' program has probably prepared our students more than anything for their life, because it’s a life skill to have good character, showing respect,” said Rani Bertsch, principal of Griffiths Middle School in Downey. Student enrollment at her school is 89 percent Latino.

Surveys she conducts, she said, don’t show significant feelings of the low student well-being described in the UCLA research.

The Downey school district and the City of Downey adopted the Character Counts program in 2006 to teach youth and adults trustworthiness, respect and other traits. The program has improved academic achievement, school leaders said.

The UCLA research findings have academic implications too because a school may be diverse but students can be tracked into more academically rigorous courses.

“You’re an African American kid and you’re in a diverse school but most of your classes are with other African American or Latino kids, that’s the racialized tracking, or if you’re a white or Asian kid and you’re in a very diverse school but most of your classes throughout the day are with other white and Asian kids, you’re not benefitting from the diversity of the school as much as you should,” Graham said.

Jefferson Middle School Principal Matt Arnold agrees with those findings. A few years ago he and his staff at the San Gabriel school began diversifying honors classes after they saw that they were made up mostly of Asian students. His school is about a third Latino.

“We sometimes force kids into classes that are higher, still hold the high expectation and then show them they can do it and it helps diversify the class,” he said.

This kind of proactive change by administrators, Graham said, is the kind she’d like to see at more schools.