Our health is determined in large part by access to social and economic opportunities; the resources and supports available in our homes, neighborhoods, and communities, and the quality of our schooling [1]. The social determinants of health are the most significant drivers of differences in health outcomes and health inequities in the District of Columbia. Education is linked with health through three major interrelated pathways: health knowledge and behaviors, employment and income, and social and psychological factors [2]. In the 2019 DC CHNA Survey, 1 in 3 survey respondents chose “good schools and safe places to raise children” as one of the top five most important factors that a community needs to reach its full potential as a “healthy community.”

The DC Healthy People 2020 goal for this topic is:

1.  To achieve health equity by addressing social determinants of health and structural/system-level inequities.

In this assessment, education is defined as an individual’s education attainment level or the years of formal instructions. Years of schooling is linked to higher incomes, employment options, and increased social supports that altogether improve opportunities for healthier choices [3].

Higher educational attainment is positively associated with many physical and mental health outcomes, which can lead to a greater sense of control over one’s life, and better overall health and healthier lifestyle decisions [2].

Education is also connected to life expectancy, in the U.S. college graduates live nine more years than individuals who don’t complete high school [2]. In 2017, the less educational attainment District residents had, the more likely they were to report their health as fair or poor [4].

The important relationships between neighborhoods, school quality, poverty, educational outcomes, and health are well documented. Good schools are essential ingredients to healthy neighborhoods, and both are needed to break the poverty cycle and to support improved health outcomes [5].

Early Childhood

As innate learners, children are born with the capacity to succeed. Their environment, quality of relationships with adults, and experiences – all shaped by systems – can have an effect on whether they thrive. Kindergarten readiness is a priority and critical milestone in the District that can shape students success through school and into adulthood [6]. Early development is measured to provide a citywide snapshot of health, development and school readiness for the full population of children across the District.

DC Public School’s Early Action Pre-Kindergarten program provides guaranteed access for students applying to pre-kindergarten at participating schools. Students who live in-boundary for a participating DCPS Early Action school are guaranteed a seat at their full-day in-boundary school in PK3 or PK4. The District also participates in the Head Start program for children between the ages 3 and 5 years old. Head Start is a Federal program for preschool children from low-income families. The Head Start program is operated by local non-profit organizations in almost every county in the country. Children who attend Head Start participate in a variety of educational activities. They also receive free medical and dental care, have healthy meals and snacks, and enjoy playing indoors and outdoors in a safe setting.

To measure the level of readiness we focus on five domains: physical health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development, and communication skills. In 2016, 33% of 4-year olds in DC were developmentally on track in all five domains.

High School

High school graduation rates have seen overall gains in the last decade even with their most recent dip in 2018. In 2018, the citywide four-year graduation rate at 68.5% meant that more than 30% of District public high school students still did not graduate in the expected time frame. A high school degree or diploma is a critical stepping stone to earning sustainable wages in a future career, and the District falls below the national average of 84% four-year graduation rate [6].

While academic performance outcomes in DC schools are an important part of the educational experiences for students, it is also essential to understand the differences in educational opportunity and school discipline practices.

Black students in DC charter and traditional public schools are 11.7 times more likely than White students to be disciplined compared to the national average 3.9 times.

In DC Public Schools, Black students are 15.2 times more likely to be disciplined/suspended compared to White students; Native American students are 6.5 times as likely to be suspended; Non-white Latinx students are 4.3 times as likely to be suspended; and Asian students are 3.3 times as likely to be suspended [7]. This breakdown is seen even further when broken down by race/ethnicity and gender.

Research on school discipline reveals racial and cultural biases that impact how Black girls are treated. Black girls in the District are nearly 6 times as likely to be suspended from school compared to their white counterparts, and nine times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension compared to non-Black girls [8]. A recent child development study, “The Promoting Resilience Among African American Girls: Racial Identity as a Protective Factor” found that feeling positive about being Black and feeling supported by their schools correlated with Black adolescent girls feeling greater academic motivation [9]. The study concluded that when Black girls feel positive about their identity, supported, connected and belonging at school, it can improve academic outcomes.

Post-secondary Education

Compared to other states, DC is one of the most college educated jurisdictions in the country. In 2017, nearly 60% of adults residents over the age of 25 had a post-secondary degree.  DC faces a challenge of connecting youth and young adults to continuing education. Roughly 10% of youth ages 16-24 are both out of school and out of work [6]. Disengagement and lack of high school credential attainment heightens the risk of limited or non-entry into the workforce and vastly lessens the chance of earning a family-supporting wage and adapting to ongoing evolution of the labor market. As the District continues its efforts to ensure that all students within its pre-K-12 system receive a quality education, it is also critical that students who have dropped out have solid on-ramps to reconnect back to education options that will prepare them for successful adulthood.

It is estimated that by the year 2020, 76% of jobs in DC will require post-secondary education, making it the highest concentration of post-secondary education positions in the entire country. Currently, though, the six-year bachelor’s degree and three-year associate’s degree attainment rate for DC’s high school graduates who enroll in college sits at 37% [6].

Communities, health professionals and educators can work together to increase educational attainment for children and adults, better preparing the individuals and families of today and tomorrow to live long, healthy lives.


Citations & Additional Data Resources

1. Healthy People 2020. Social Determinants of Health.

2. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Education and Health.  2011

3. County Health Rankings. Education. 2018.

4. DC Health Center for Policy, Planning, and Evaluation. DC BRFSS 2017

5. DC Health Office of Health Equity. Health Equity Report. 2018

6. Raise DC 2019

7. ProPublica. Miseducation: Is There Racial Inequality at Your School? 2015-2016

8. Rights4Girls and the Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative. Beyond the Walls: A Look at Girls in D.C’s Juvenile Justice System. 2018

9. Butler-Barnes, Sheretta, et al. Promoting Resilience Among African American Girls: Racial Identity as a Protective Factor. Child Development Journal Volume 89, Issue 6. 2017

Addition Data Resources

 Downloadable DCPS Data Sets

• School Data at a Glance

• DC Public Charter School Board FAQs and Data

Photo Credits

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action
“Astronaut Drew Feustel at John Burroughs Elementary School” NASA HQ, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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