When the California Endowment’s Laura Olson began working in the far northern region of Del Norte County, California, she faced a dilemma.
Del Norte County (and Adjacent Tribal Lands) is one of 14 communities that make up the California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities program. The Foundation’s hallmark program seeks to create places where children are healthy, safe and ready to learn. The heart of this work is engaging communities in strategies that will improve the health and well-being of their residents through systemic change.
But, as any funder knows, it isn’t easy to find ways to deeply involve community members in such efforts. For Olson, a beneficiary survey called YouthTruth helped catalyze community discussion.
Del Norte, a rural area located about seven hours north of San Francisco, faces an array of challenges including a declining fishing and timber industry, the highest poverty rate of any county in the state and very low rates of youth going on to higher education. As part of the planning process for The Endowment’s initiative, community members said that in order for them to have a healthy community, they needed a successful economy, which they linked to a successful education system.
Why Are Schools Failing?
The community’s need to strengthen schools to get to a healthier community is what led The California Endowment, a health funder, to look at how it could help push for educational change, said Olson, program manager at The California Endowment in a panel at the 2011 Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) conference.
She soon discovered a barrier.
“What we needed was a common understanding of current conditions [in the schools],” Olson said “You’d walk into a coffee shop and people would say the school system is failing. You would ask ‘What about the system is failing?’ But they didn’t know. Business leaders didn’t know why it was failing, just that they can’t hire their workforce from local graduates. Nobody could really talk about it.”
The Endowment set out to gather data on the strengths and challenges of area schools so community members could have an informed conversation.
For help, Olson turned to YouthTruth. The survey, created in 2008 by CEP with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, gathers data on high school students’ perceptions of their schools. Through the survey, students report what is working in their schools and what could be improved. CEP then provides customized reports to schools that show each school’s results in comparison with peer schools in their district as well as to schools that make up the national YouthTruth sample. District leaders and local funders also receive a summary report. YouthTruth provides findings for school leadership, students, and district personnel and works with staff to use the results to make changes in their schools.
As part of its data gathering, The Endowment commissioned YouthTruth surveys of students in all four county high schools. The survey asked students questions about areas such as:
- Their relationships with their teachers.
- Their school’s overall culture.
- Their preparedness for their future goals.
- The rigor of classes and instruction.
- Their life outside of high school.
At The Endowment’s request, CEP also added customized questions on students’ sense of well-being, lunch options and exercise habits.
Student Survey Reveals Surprises
The survey results were startling. And they helped spark a conversation in the community, Olson said.
“What did we learn from the data?” Olson said. “We learned that students don’t feel challenged in the classroom. Students were considering other options besides college after graduation, and a large proportion of students felt unclear about their future. Teachers and administrators were surprised. They said they didn’t know they weren’t talking about options after college.”
Because YouthTruth survey findings provide comparative data, teachers, school administrators and community members could see that students ranked the high schools in Del Norte comparatively lower than other schools on questions such as, “My school has helped me understand the steps I need to take in order to apply to college.”
The YouthTruth survey achieved an 80 percent response rate from students across the four schools, making the findings particularly compelling not only for schools but for the larger community, according to Olson.
“The data [from YouthTruth and other sources] was used to inform and engage people outside the school system,” she said. “For me, that was a key aspect. This was an opportunity to get the community involved in a conversation around schools. Having this perception data was important in that process. It brought diverse stakeholders to the table. A lot of people came who wouldn’t have come to engage in a conversation about education. We had an economic development summit and we engaged businesses, and teachers and parents. We got the conversation started, including envisioning what we want to see. It’s not just the schools’ responsibility to educate their children but the community’s responsibility.”
“At the end, we created a common understanding of the problem and we raised the profile of important issues in the community.” Olson continued. “Now, when community members go into the coffee shop, they can tell you what’s going on in education and they can tell you what students are thinking.”
YouthTruth Provides Key Baseline Data
The data from the YouthTruth survey brought another important benefit to Olson, she said. The California Endowment is just two years into its 10-year Building Healthy Communities initiative. By surveying high school students early on, the Endowment can repeat the survey and see if student perceptions of teachers and school change over time as a result of planned interventions in Del Norte.
“Now we have this great baseline data,” Olson said. “It’s not a 2 percent sample size. It’s an 80 percent response rate. We can do it again and we can generate engagement of those whose lives and thinking we are trying to change. The students are talking about what they want and what they think for the first time because we asked them. [YouthTruth] allowed us to engage the students in a way that we just didn’t have the tools to do in the past.”