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What do L.A. students want most? Mental health help, an adult to listen, reliable tech

A classroom
Students attend class at the Girls Academic Leadership Academy in Los Angeles in August.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Students in Los Angeles public schools said they have suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic and expressed a “non-negotiable” need for academic success: mental wellness.

Yet 1 in 3 students of color say they don’t have an adult at school with whom they feel comfortable enough to talk about how they are feeling, according to a survey released Wednesday.

The survey of middle school and high school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District drives home their hardships and high-priority needs: access to technology and opportunities for tutoring, extra classes and extracurricular activities.

The survey included input from 769 students and follow-up student focus groups commissioned by a coalition called Communities for Los Angeles Student Success, under the leadership of United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

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About half the students said they worried about not only their own mental health but that of parents, other family members and friends. They are stressed about their physical health too.

Among Black students, 71% reported that getting sick at school would be a potential stressor; 60% of white students felt that way.

Pandemic-forced school closures revealed how grade-point systems hurt disadvantaged children, prompting educators to look for ways to bring equity to grading.

Latino students, by 10 percentage points, are more worried than non-Latino students about their own physical health, the physical and mental health of their families, and the mental health of friends. By a similar margin, Latino students are more worried about getting good grades as well as taking care of parents, siblings or other relatives.

The survey results underscore the importance of listening to students as the district develops support systems for them — especially in a rare moment when the district is relatively flush with funding, said Norma Rodriguez, director of education programs and policy for United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

“Student input was critical before the pandemic, and it’s even more critical now,” Rodriguez said.

Evelyn Flores, who attended Mendez High School in Boyle Heights, spent the last academic year attending school online while living with two sisters and her parents in a one-bedroom apartment. The close quarters and shaky internet connection — with two students in high school, another sister online for her work and their mother doing coursework for her GED — made it difficult to learn. Matters got worse when both parents contracted COVID-19 and her father lost his supermarket job.

Flores and her sisters essentially lived and attended school in the living room, while their parents quarantined in the bedroom. For a few days, she thought her father wasn’t going to make it. The daughters learned how to pay the bills and cook. Flores got a job in food service at the Santa Monica Pier to help with finances, sometimes signing into class online while commuting on the Metro.

At the same time, she was applying to college.

“I felt dumb, because I was learning about how to apply for financial aid and the application requirements,” she said. “I was a senior in high school, and I didn’t know how to apply for college. I didn’t have the resources I needed.

“I felt pretty bad,” she recalled. “I had school, and I had to manage all these things, prioritize my family. That led to me getting anxiety.”

At the time, putting off college seemed like a good idea.

The survey indicated that only 43% of college-bound juniors and seniors agreed or strongly agreed that they were adequately prepared for the fall semester.

Studies across the country have documented that students in remote learning made less academic progress than in a typical year. And learning gaps widened among Black and Latino students from low-income families.

“COVID created a perfect storm of stress, anxiety and trauma in the children within our state,” said Sean Varner, a Riverside attorney and vice-chair of the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency, which recently released a report on student mental health.

Varner and other commissioners on Tuesday cited data suggesting that mental health stresses on the state’s young people had been worsening before the pandemic hit. In addition to increased isolation, young people “grappled daily with anxiety over the safety of family members who are essential workers or were stressed from parents’ loss of income,” Varner said. “And tragically, many of them are dealing with grief from the loss of loved ones as a result of COVID-19.”

Even prior to the pandemic, rates of adolescent suicide and self-harm were increasing, Little Hoover commissioners noted in their online forum. In California, mental health illness is the leading cause of hospitalization among children, they reported.

And the students in Los Angeles made clear — in the survey and focus groups — that providing more support for mental wellness is “non-negotiable” for them and “a prerequisite to academic success,” according to the report that accompanied the survey results.

A person smiles over a book.
Marco E. Joven Dominguez, the first in his family to attend college, is at Harvard University studying government and philosophy.
(Josie W. Chen / Harvard Crimson)

Marco E. Joven Dominguez, who graduated in the spring from Social Justice Humanities Academy in San Fernando, said he began to suffer debilitating migraines from long days on the computer doing coursework and college applications. His father contracted COVID-19 while working as a janitor, then his mother got sick. Joven Dominguez managed the household as he and his younger brother continued to take classes online with an unstable internet connection.

“It was a very lonely period,” he said. “I was not able to give them a New Year’s hug. That solitude had a big impact on my mental health. My brother and I felt so lonely, so distant from our friends and our extended family. I felt like I didn’t have anyone to talk to about this experience.”

More than one-third of students in the United Way/CLASS survey disclosed having some non-school-related responsibility. Approximately 11% said they have a job outside of school. In addition, 13% said they were responsible for taking care of parents, grandparents or other adults, while 29% were responsible for younger siblings or relatives.

About half reported that these responsibilities created stress for them.

Additionally, a quarter of students said they were at least a little worried about having basic needs met, such as food, a place to live and essential technology.

The survey was open to all of L.A. Unified’s middle and high school students from June through the end of August 2021, shortly after the start of school. The participating students represented more than 100 local schools and organizations.

There are fears about students suffering potentially lifelong setbacks from school closures, but the survey shows the stresses they are under today — for which there is still a chance to provide help.

“We need we need to treat this as the same [level of] emergency as when the pandemic began because it is the same level of seriousness,” said L.A. school board President Kelly Gonez, who took part in an online briefing about the survey.

That view was echoed by Alicia Montgomery, executive director of the locally based Center for Powerful Public Schools.

“Anytime we want to empower people to be engaged, we do that by actually listening and actually doing what they’ve asked to be done,” Montgomery said.

Joven Dominguez said his brother, in 11th grade, has had trouble adjusting to the resumption of in-person classes and is struggling to complete work on time and remain engaged. He says he, too, feels like he’s still recovering from social isolation as well as inadequate academic progress during the pandemic. But he and Flores have both made it to college — examples of what can happen when students find their own well of resilience. And both were active in outside nonprofits that provided counseling.

Flores, whose immigrant parents never made it to middle school, is a freshman at Cal State L.A. Joven Dominguez managed to get his applications in on time and is the the first in his family to attend college. He’s at Harvard University studying government and philosophy.


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