Courtesy: Thomas Courtney
Fifth grader Erick Zavala surveys classmate Manny Zepeda to find common interests they'd like to learn about in the 2021-2022 school year. The two are students in Thomas Courtney's class in San Diego Unified.

I’ll make you a bet. Pull up the latest U.S. Census Bureau demographic map for your California city and you’ll find virtually the same thing I found in mine: The geography of our cities couldn’t be more divided by ethnicity if they were drawn that way on purpose. And as we’ve seen time and time again, this segregation of our cities based on both racial and economic lines has exacerbated gaps in our school system that we’ve long overlooked.

But we have a resource that can help us identify and address those gaps — if we only took the time to pay attention to it.

The California Healthy Kids Survey, or CHKS, is a state initiative to collect student responses about a range of topics from social and emotional wellness to school climate. It is given yearly so that the kids and families we serve can help us better understand those gaps, even when we can’t see them in our classrooms ourselves. Unfortunately, the results of that survey are not often seen, and rarely discussed by educational leaders across our state.

And because I value the input of the students and families I serve, I fully support SB 699, a bill that would place their survey data alongside test scores, attendance and suspension rates on the California School Dashboard. I’ve arrived at this position by what I found in my own district’s survey results, my fifth grade students’ results among them. I saw contradictions immediately.

For starters, 24% of responding fifth graders throughout the district thought challenging themselves was pretty much or completely unhelpful in school. Since 40% of the 5,149 responses came from my school, I had to reflect that my students might feel the same in equal proportion. If that were true, then 24% of my class — or seven kids in my classroom — thought challenging themselves did them no good. I wondered: How could this be when 97% of San Diego Unified’s responses, or possibly my entire class, felt as though their families have high expectations for them?

I read on, and suddenly the pre-pandemic needs of my students’ social and emotional well-being also hit me like a brick.

Based on responses, only 10% — or three kids in my room — wake up excited for school all the time, only 23% — or seven kids — give themselves a high assessment of optimism and, horribly — only two kids — or 7%, think of themselves as having a passion or “zest” for learning.

Worse, 19% of our district’s fifth graders — possibly four of my own students — experience sadness all or most of the time,  and11% marked that they could never find someone on the school campus to talk with when they needed it.

Only 78% — or about 22 of my 32 — students feel safe all the time in school, and 13% — or four of my own students — may have seen a weapon at school. Suddenly, I wondered how the students in my class were concentrating at all long before the pandemic started. Were district leaders — was I, for that matter — considering this data before the pandemic?

As I continued to read, it no longer surprised me that only 35% — or about 11 of my kids — would have a high belief in themselves. Or that 27% — or nine of my kids — would have a high belief in others and that 40% — or only 14 students in my classroom — would give themselves a high degree of empathy.

I mean, 37% of students felt as though they had no say in classroom activities or rules, and 47% of boys and 34% of girls had been hit or pushed at school.

Based on these data, these kids had things other than school they were worrying about. And I clearly had no idea what that was, but I could have. In fact, we all could begin to have an idea, and do something differently post-pandemic, if we put the results of the Healthy Kids Survey on the California School Dashboard by talking with and writing to our elected leaders about SB 699.

Is it OK to talk about post-pandemic change in schools without considering the views of the families and students we serve? Are test data, attendance rates and suspension rates really enough now? Or are we finally ready to insist that our kids deserve more, because they are telling us that very thing themselves?


Thomas Courtney teaches fifth grade at Chollas-Mead Elementary school in San Diego Unified and is a senior policy fellow with Teach Plus California and a member of EdSource’s teacher advisory committee. A 22-year teacher in Southeast San Diego, Courtney was named the 2020-21 San Diego Unified Elementary District Teacher of the Year.

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  1. Jim 1 year ago1 year ago

    This is an excellent idea. However it is contrary to the current idea of including any useful information at all. Perhaps if the California Health Kids Survey were presented in way that the average parent could not understand, then it might be published.