Sherman Elementary School students work on their Spanish reading assignments. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Stories about schools, strangely, often focus on adults. What new policy did the school board pass? What did the superintendent say today? How will the adults handle the budget?

But San Diego Unified School District, as well as other districts around the state, possess a trove of information on students’ perspectives of their educations. Those perspectives say a lot about the health of the region’s schools.

The California Healthy Kids Survey is administered to most schools in San Diego Unified each year and asks a range of questions about student experience, including: Do you get to do interesting activities in school? Do adults there care about you? Is your school clean and tidy? Do you feel safe?

Each school functions as its own distinct ecosystem. The student survey attempts to sample the health of that environment.

For comparison, take a coral reef. A healthy reef needs sunlight, a mix of lifeforms and to function in synchrony with ocean currents; the water needs to be a certain temperature and not too acidic.

Likewise, students need to feel safe and engaged at school. The physical environment needs to be warm and welcoming. If the balance is thrown off, students are not able to learn and grow.

The results of the 2017-18 healthy kids survey make one thing clear: There are wide disparities in health among the district’s 100-plus school ecosystems.

We created a searchable database listing the results to 11 key questions from the survey. The database contains the results for all schools in the district that administered the healthy kids survey.

For each question you can sort the results to draw your own conclusions about the health of the district’s schools. Here are some of our takeaways.

First, consider safety. At some elementary schools as many as 96 percent of students feel safe. At others, the percentage drops to 54 percent and lower. (To establish this range, I only considered schools where more than 50 percent of students responded to the survey. We listed the results for other schools, but be aware that as the participation rate in a survey goes down, the margin of error goes up.)

You can click on each dot on the map below to also view the survey results.

Based on how many students reported feeling safe, we sorted schools into three categories. Those where many students felt safe are green. Those where the percentage of students who felt safe was close to average are yellow. Those where relatively few students felt safe are red.

Nearly three times as many schools where students felt less safe are located south of Interstate 8.

The safety results are not the only ones with wide-ranging disparities.

  • Schools with interesting activities: At Ocean Beach Elementary, 84 percent of students said they get to do interesting activities at school. At Cabrillo Elementary, just 24 percent said the same thing. Several other elementary schools also scored well below average.
  • Students motivated to learn: One question on the survey asks students whether their fellow classmates in school are motivated to learn. Between the schools with the highest and lowest percentage of students answering yes, there was a 60 percentage point spread. At Bethune K-8, 87 percent of students classified their peers as motivated to learn. At Webster Elementary, just 27 percent agreed.
  • Caring adults: At Ocean Beach Elementary, 99 percent of students said there is an adult at school who cares about them. At Cubberley Elementary, 45 percent said there is a caring adult.
  • Weapon at school: The percentage of students who have seen a weapon, like a gun or knife at school, also varied wildly. At Lafayette Elementary, 58 percent of students reported having seen a weapon at school during the last 12 months. At Wegeforth Elementary and several other schools, 0 percent of students reported having seen a weapon on campus.

District officials with San Diego Unified did not respond to a request for comment. District spokeswoman Maureen Magee previously said the district works with individual schools to help them understand their results. Magee was vague about exactly how the district uses the results and she raised doubts about their significance.

“The district works with schools to help them understand their individual survey results based on participation levels, which vary widely school by school and year by year; administration of the survey; and other factors,” Magee wrote in a statement.

High school and middle school students take a different survey than students in elementary school. (Unless otherwise noted, the results in our database come from fifth graders in elementary school, seventh graders in middle school and ninth graders in high school.)

In general, middle and high schoolers reported feeling less safe in school than elementary schoolers. Districtwide, 77 percent of elementary schoolers reported feeling safe in school. For middle school, 58 percent of students reported feeling safe while 51 percent of high schoolers reported feeling safe.

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In general, the variation in results between middle and high schools were less wide-ranging than the elementary school results. This secondary school survey also asks several questions not found on the elementary school survey.

  • School clean and tidy. This question does not appear on the elementary school survey, but answers varied widely across high school and middle schools. At Hoover High, 62 percent of students reported their school is not usually clean and tidy. Several other schools had percentages in the 40s and 50s. At Kearny Innovation English and Design School, only 5 percent reported their school was not clean or tidy.
  • Feel close to others at school. At Longfellow K-8, 88 percent of students reported feeling close to other students in their school. At other schools, the percentage drifted below 50 percent.
  • Considered suicide. In one school as much as 36 percent of students had considered suicide. At others, the percentage dropped to just 2 percent.

This data can be used to improve students’ senses of safety and well-being, said David Osher, who studies school climate at the American Institutes for Research. Districts must take a hard look at the data, he previously told VOSD, and target improvement plans toward particular student groups who have a diminished sense of safety in school.

When this happens, he said, students’ academic outcomes can improve greatly.

“School teams need to be put in place to plan around the data,” Osher said. “And they need to be constantly asking, ‘What can we do to improve how students are experiencing conditions for learning?’”

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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