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New data provides a snapshot of DC student well-being a year after returning to in-person learning

Education Forward DC
Education Forward DC

New data released today provides insights into how students in the District of Columbia are faring since they returned to the classroom after nearly two-and-a-half years of remote learning during the global COVID-19 pandemic — as reported by the students themselves.

Students Speak: A Snapshot of Student Well-Being in Washington, D.C., was produced by  Bellwether, a national nonprofit, with support from Education Forward DC and Venture Philanthropy Partners + Raise DC (VPP+Raise DC). 

The report analyzes survey results from 5,419 students in grades 3-12 across the District. These students completed portions of the Panorama Social-Emotional Learning survey focused on student well-being across four areas: how students feel about their school environment, their motivation and support to do well in school, the quality of their social relationships, and their self-perception and skills to succeed. All DC public schools were invited to participate in the survey; data in the report reflects results from 12 charter school networks who agreed to participate.

Key findings include:

  • Most students reported valuing school, but less than 40% reported feeling engaged in school — with less than 20% feeling engaged by the end of high school.
  • More than 80% of students reported having supportive relationships in their lives. But those support networks don’t necessarily include teachers: only 38% reported having close relationships with their teachers.
  • More than 70% of students felt their teachers held them to high expectations, yet only about 50% believe they can succeed academically, and slightly more than half indicated that they persevere through setbacks. 
  • Most students felt a sense of belonging at school, but only 24% confidently reported feeling safe at school, and only 45% described their school environment as diverse and inclusive.

“The first step in supporting student well-being is understanding it — and that starts with asking students what they’re experiencing in school,” said Melissa Steel King, Partner and Evaluation Leader at Bellwether and co-author of the report. “Participating schools now have actionable data — rooted in student voice — that can help them build on bright spots, address challenges, and better support all the young people they serve.”

Student well-being encompasses students’ social and emotional wellness, relationships, engagement, and experiences at school. As a result of international efforts to strengthen health promotion in schools, researchers and educators have increasingly focused on conceptualizing, defining, and improving the well-being of youth and young people in the past three decades

The schools participating in the survey sought to better understand how students are doing after the COVID pandemic and, more importantly, how they can better support them into the future.

“The schools who participated deserve a great deal of credit,” said Carol Thompson Cole, President & CEO of VPP+Raise DC. “Whenever we shine a light on a tough question, there’s the temptation to blame or hold someone accountable. But gathering and analyzing data is how we move the needle on issues affecting our students. With this data, leaders can take action to provide students what they need to fulfill their academic and social-emotional growth.”

The data is not without its limitations, however.

“These results are useful at the individual school level, but without greater participation from other District schools, data from multiple years, and national trends to compare it to, it’s hard to say more broadly that ‘Students are okay’ or ‘Students are struggling,’” said King.

“I applaud the school leaders who opted into this survey to better understand and support their students after an unprecedented time,” said Bisi Oyedele, CEO of Education Forward DC. “I encourage more school leaders to join these efforts in the future so that we have a fuller picture of how  DC students are doing and how the District can set them up for future success.”

The report offers several recommendations for using the data to improve student well-being, including:

  • Prioritizing hearing directly from students about their experiences in school, through surveys and other tools
  • Investing time and resources in understanding factors that may be adversely affecting the experiences of older students and creating more positive experiences for younger ones
  • Adopting strategies to improve engagement in school that center students’ voice and choice, and help them make connections between school and their daily lives 
  • Increasing ethnic and cultural awareness and inclusivity in schools, and helping teachers help students draw connections between their learning and their own experiences with race, ethnicity, and culture.

Education Forward DC hosted its fourth Better Than Before event on April 25, 2023 to present and explore this new snapshot of student wellbeing and how we can work to collectively ensure DC is supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing better than before.

The full report can be found here.

Education Forward DC
Education Forward DC

Every DC student deserves to thrive.