As education professionals prepare to welcome students back in the fall, a summer report from America’s Promise Alliance paints a picture of how high schoolers navigated historic upheaval in and out of school over the last year. The report surveyed around 2,500 youth, ages 13-19, who attended high school in 2020-21. In the face of the pandemic and the nation’s ongoing reckoning with racial injustice, the report offers three findings, as well as recommendations to address them:
Finding 1: High schoolers are struggling with a decreased sense of wellbeing, reporting declines in mental health and concerning levels of disconnection from peers and adults.
Based on the idea that students learn best when they are in a safe and supported environment, the study asked multiple questions about mental health and well-being. Strikingly, nearly 3 out of 4 youth reported a poor or decreased sense of mental health in the past 30 days, and many said they struggle to “feel happy” or feel they play “a useful part in things.” Additionally, more than half of youth (58%) said they experience signs of distress much more than usual, including things like losing sleep due to worrying, or feeling unhappy and depressed.
Different groups report varying levels of well-being: female, non-binary, and Latinx youth — as well as youth who experience food insecurity — report disproportionate levels of poor or reduced mental health.
High schoolers also report feeling disconnected from their peers and adults. Only a small percentage of students report feeling very connected to their peers, teachers, and adults in school, and this disconnectedness was seen in students who learned remotely or in-school last year. Overall, these findings paint a picture of isolated and stressed young people who lack in-school relationships that may offer support.
Finding 2: Opportunities to learn about race and racism in the classroom vary but are associated with higher levels of critical consciousness and social action.
The study also was interested in understanding how high school students learned about racism in school and perceived last year’s nationwide protests for racial justice. It found about half of students report they have opportunities to discuss race and racism sometimes or often in school, and more than half report their school curriculum represents non-white history and experiences.
Students of color were less likely to say their school’s curriculum represents their own specific racial/ethnic background compared to white students. This is consistent with research that suggests non-white perspectives tend to be underrepresented in public school curriculum, although Latinx, Black, and Asian students outnumber White students in public schools. Yet research shows students of color earn better grades when they see themselves in their curriculum, while White students benefit from being exposed to new perspectives.
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Young people also share the belief that the world would be a better place if all groups were “given an equal chance in life.” Over half of students feel women, certain racial/ethnic groups, and poor people have fewer chances to get ahead, and an overwhelming majority of students endorse greater egalitarianism. Ultimately, the study finds that youth who have more opportunities to learn about race and racism in schools report higher levels of personal social action to address issues they see in the world.
Finding 3: COVID-19 has upended postsecondary planning, yet feelings of postsecondary readiness are highest among students who are most connected to teachers and peers, have opportunities to learn about race and racism in school, and feel academically interested and challenged.
Four out of five 11th and 12th graders said COVID-19 impacted their plans after high school — a more dire percentage compared to FCAN’s survey of Florida voters in June 2020. The most common change was to attend college closer to home or switch from a 4-year institution to a 2-year institution. About half said their plans changed for financial or family reasons, showing the widespread economic impact of the pandemic.
Concerningly for the college access field, only about half (57%) of students say what they learn in high school is “useful information to prepare for what you want to do in life.” Additionally, about half of students say they look forward to their classes (46%) or are interested in what they study in school (55%).
However, there are some bright spots. Students that reported a higher level of connectedness to teachers and peers, had opportunities to discuss race/racism in school, and/or were interested in their coursework were significantly associated with higher beliefs that their high school experience prepared them for postsecondary success. This means academic, civic, and social experiences can predict students’ feelings that high school is preparing them for the future.
In light of these findings, the study offers four recommendations to optimize high school experiences towards postsecondary success. These include:
- Seriously addressing student mental health
- Investing in teaching about race and racism in schools
- Connecting high school content to postsecondary learning
- Centering relationships with school adults and peers, especially for students who learned remotely last year
These findings offer important messages for those interested in postsecondary access and attainment in Florida. As many schools shift to more consistent in-person schooling, we have an opportunity to implement actions that align with what young people say that they want and need. In particular, the college access field has an opportunity to continue to support relevant, challenging content and pathways planning by enhancing programs like internships, dual enrollment and college-level coursework in high school, and community-supported college and career readiness initiatives. In doing so, we can work to make education beyond high school more accessible for all.