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September 8, 2004

Education and Public Health Leaders Urge Sweeping Action to Address “Culture Of Detachment” in U.S. Schools

Up to 60 Percent of Students Feel Disengaged from School; Stronger Ties Would Help Reduce Involvement in Risky Behaviors and Improve Academic Achievement

Citing a vast body of empirical evidence, leaders in education and public health policy called on the nation’s schools to strengthen their connections with students, outlining a multi-pronged strategy aimed at boosting academic performance while reducing drug and alcohol use, suicide, violence, smoking and sex among teens.

To that end, schools should make greater efforts to set and implement high academic standards, apply fair and consistent disciplinary policies, and ensure that every student feels close to at least one supportive adult at school, according to the group, whose statement was published today in a special issue of the Journal of School Health.

The group says that these and other steps would go a long way to improving “school connectedness” – a student’s feeling of being part of and cared for at school. Numerous studies have demonstrated that school connectedness is a powerful protective factor against a range of risky adolescent behaviors. In addition, students who feel that they “belong” in their schools tend to perform better academically than those who do not.

Yet research shows that 40 to 60 percent of all students – urban, suburban and rural – are chronically disengaged from school. Those figures do not include teens that drop out of school.

“We have a culture of detachment in our nation’s schools,” said Robert Blum, MD, PhD, the convener for the so-called Wingspread Group of education and health leaders. “Essentially, we’re telling kids: ‘You’re on your own,’ and while some succeed, many don’t. This is not acceptable.”

Blum is also the William H. Gates Sr. Professor and Chair of the Department of Population and Family Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “The research is overwhelming on what needs to be done,” he said. “We need to engage kids in their own education and make them want to be a part of school. If we do that, we’ll improve their prospects for academic success and reduce the likelihood that they’ll become involved in a whole raft of dangerous behaviors.”

The consensus group, made up of more than 20 national leaders who attended a conference sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) includes educators, researchers, policymakers, and advocates. Their consensus statement, known as the “Wingspread Declaration,” is published today along with six commissioned research reviews that document the evidence on the role of school connectedness in the lives of youth.

Key to school connectedness is the relationship between students and teachers. Students who perceive their teachers as creating a caring, well-structured learning environment in which expectations are high, clear, and fair are more likely to feel connected to their schools.  But the Wingspread statement emphasizes that all school staff – administrators, teachers, janitors, coaches – play a critical role in making students feel that they belong in school. It also notes that the positive effects of school connectedness cut across racial, ethnic, and income groups.

A monograph co-authored by Blum that summarizes the Wingspread proceedings offers numerous strategies for improving school connectedness. School administrators should:

In addition, teachers should:

Journal articles

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons or Kenna Lowe at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu.