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Schools’ Neighborhood Environment Affects Academic Outcomes in Flint

Child raising hand in classroom

A neighborhood’s physical disorder has been linked to differences in academic outcomes. However, school neighborhood has not been studied as a potential additional environmental factor in academic outcomes—until now.

In a paper published on September 5 in Child and Youth Care Forum a Michigan State University research team led by Mieka Smart, assistant professor in the College of Human Medicine (CHM) Division of Public Health and the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, explored this association.

Smart defines neighborhood physical disorder as the visually perceivable problems present in a given area, which can include graffiti, garbage, and public intoxication.

In Flint, Mich., the presence of neighborhood physical disorder arises from a combination of factors, including industry disinvestment, increased crime/poverty rates, the outmigration of residents, and the effects of the Flint Water Crisis.

In their school neighborhood study, the MSU researchers examined academic achievement and attendance for the 21 schools within the boundaries of Flint and found evidence that school neighborhoods may impact academic achievement. Specifically, students exposed to economically disadvantaged neighborhoods at school, regardless of where they live, may have poorer academic skills.

“We are the first to objectively evaluate and find a significant relationship between the school neighborhood physical environment and its impact on academically related youth outcomes,” said Smart, who is also director of CHM’s Leadership in Medicine for the Underserved. “We found significant relationships between neighborhood physical disorder and attendance, and neighborhood physical disorder and academic achievement in mathematics. Our research also provides an objective accounting of the conditions of the communities that children are exposed to while at school and while in transit to school.”

These findings indicate that investment in solutions to neighborhood physical disorder might improve learning outcomes for Flint area schoolchildren.

“The implication is that efforts undertaken to improve physical and social conditions of a neighborhood might have this amazing unintended benefit—improvement in academic achievement for the kids that go to school there,” Smart said. “Understanding the effect of neighborhood conditions on child and youth academic outcomes is important for considering potential physical environmental interventions in the school’s neighborhood environment—the physical environment that surrounds a school—an environment that has not received adequate scientific attention.”

The next step is to obtain individual data from area education programs.

“This would allow us to understand how residential neighborhoods and school neighborhoods might interact to impact academic outcomes,” Smart added.

The project was funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. Additional authors on the paper are Julia Felton, Cristian Meghea, Zachary Buchalski, Leah Maschino, and Richard Sadler.

Jill Vondrasek via MSU Today

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