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Students’ well-being tracked to improve lives

Resource type: News

The San Francisco Chronicle (California) |

by Nanette Asimov

Fewer kids in Napa County visit the dentist regularly than kids in other California counties. More San Francisco children teeter on the brink of depression than other children do. And for some reason, fewer parents in Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties are reading to their very young children than parents living elsewhere.

These are among hundreds of illuminating and sometimes heart-wrenching facts revealed in a new county-by-county study of the well-being of California’s youngest residents, published Wednesday by Children Now, a national nonprofit advocacy group based in Oakland.

By peering in at the details of children’s health and happiness – and showing precisely where they are doing well or poorly – the group hopes to push counties to take action to improve the lives of children.

“In two years, we’ll come back and see how well we’ve done, whether anything has changed,” said Ted Lempert, a former California assemblyman who heads Children Now.

Lempert acknowledges that the state’s dire financial situation makes it unlikely that counties will devote the kind of money and resources his group would like to bolster the next generation of California leaders. But he hopes that counties and schools can serve a broader range of children’s needs – and save money – by coordinating their services.

Toward that end, the group looked at how children fared in each county according to 26 indicators – from whether newborns were breast-fed after leaving the hospital to whether children had after-school supervision. They compared the counties against each other. None earned an “A.” Most were given a “C.”

To gather data, the group analyzed numerous surveys and reports from different agencies, including the state Department of Finance, Department of Education and Department of Social Services, and reports from the Rand think tank and UC Berkeley.

Most surprising to Lempert was that so many young people reported feeling disconnected from adults – and not particularly safe at their high school.

“I was really alarmed by that,” Lempert said. “Especially in urban counties like San Francisco.”

Slightly more than half of San Francisco’s ninth- and 11th-graders 52 percent say they feel “connected to an adult.”

That’s the lowest rate in the state, although students in about two-thirds of California counties feel almost as disconnected.

Feelings of safety also plunge when students reach high school.

In San Francisco, just a third of teenagers say they feel safe in school, compared with more than two-thirds in the younger grades. Similar trends show up in every Bay Area county and in most across the state.

“We’re taking this quite seriously,” said Trish Bascom, an associate superintendent in the San Francisco Unified School District who oversees health services. “We know that the strongest markers for success in school and life are caring relationships, high expectations from adults, and opportunities for meaningful participation in the community.”

Bascom said the district began tracking students’ emotional well-being two years ago and has discovered an alarming increase in students considering and planning suicide.

For the first time this year, she said, every city school is offering mental health services, supplemented by 50 mental-health interns who visit students who need them. Each high school also has a wellness center for the first time this year. Teachers – including those in high school – have been told to make students feel good about coming to school and even welcome them to class.

“The kids can’t get enough of it,” Bascom said.

Related Resources


Children & Youth, Health

Global Impact:

United States


health care, mental health