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Spotlight 2: School and School Neighborhood Problems
(Last Updated: July 2020)

In spring 2016, when most fall 2010 first-time kindergartners were in fifth grade, 34 percent of these students had school administrators who reported that crime in the neighborhood was a problem, and 31 percent had school administrators who reported that selling or using drugs or excessive drinking in public in the neighborhood was a problem. Students attending schools in neighborhoods where these issues were a big problem or somewhat of a problem consistently had lower scores in reading, mathematics, and science than did those attending schools without these problems.

Prior research has found that a school environment where bullying, victimization, and violence are prevalent could have a negative impact on student achievement and, ultimately, secondary school completion and student well-being (Kutsyuruba, Klinger, and Hussain 2015). School order and discipline are also associated with student engagement and satisfaction, and this relationship holds true for students from different demographic backgrounds and levels of academic performance (Zullig, Huebner, and Patton 2011). However, few school safety studies have specifically focused on elementary school students or on the environment of the neighborhood surrounding the school.

The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010–11 (ECLS-K:2011) provides comprehensive data about students’ early learning and development. The latest round of data collection was administered in spring 2016 (ECLS-K:11/16), when the majority of fall 2010 first-time kindergarteners were in fifth grade.1 Using this latest data collection, this spotlight explores certain problems occurring both at school and in the school’s neighborhood. First, this spotlight examines the prevalence of school and school neighborhood problems overall and in relation to student, family, and school characteristics. Next, it discusses the relationships between the extent of these problems and fifth-graders’ academic scores. Finally, this spotlight examines the relationships between these problems and fifth-graders’ positive feelings about school.

In ECLS-K:11/16, information on school and school neighborhood problems was collected from school administrators in spring 2016. School problems included theft, physical conflicts among students, vandalism of school property, student bullying, and widespread disorder in classrooms. For each school problem, the school administrator could select one response to indicate the frequency of the occurrence at school. In this spotlight, the percentages for three responses—“daily,” “at least once a week,” and “at least once a month”—are combined into the category “at least once a month,” while “on occasion” and “never” are presented as discrete response options.

School administrators were also asked to report on specific school neighborhood problems. These included tensions based on racial, ethnic, or religious differences; selling or using drugs or excessive drinking in public; presence of gangs; crime in the neighborhood; and violence in the neighborhood. School administrators were asked the extent of each school neighborhood problem and could choose one of four responses—“big problem,” “somewhat of a problem,” “no problem,” or “don’t know.”2 This spotlight combines the percentages for those reporting “big problem” and “somewhat of a problem” and refers to this combined category as the percentage of fifth-graders whose school administrator reported that a certain issue “was a problem” in the school neighborhood.

Prevalence of school and school neighborhood problems

In spring 2016, physical conflicts among students and student bullying were the two most commonly reported school problems. Based on school administrator reports, 25 percent of fifth-graders attended schools where physical conflicts among students occurred at least once a month, and 24 percent attended schools where student bullying occurred at least once a month (figure S2.1 and table S2.1).


Figure S2.1. Percentage of fifth-graders whose school administrator reported that selected problems occurred at the school at least once a month or were a problem in the school’s neighborhood: Spring 2016

Figure S2.1. Percentage of fifth-graders whose school administrator reported that selected problems occurred at the school at least once a month or were a problem in the school’s neighborhood: Spring 2016

1 For each problem, the school administrator could select only one response indicating how often the problem occurred at school. This figure shows the combined percentages for three responses—”happens daily,” “happens at least once a week,” and “happens at least once a month.”
2 For each problem, the school administrator could choose only one of four responses: “big problem,” “somewhat of a problem,” “no problem,” and “don’t know.” This figure shows the combined percentages for “big problem” and “somewhat of a problem.”
NOTE: Estimates weighted by W9C29P_9T90. Estimates pertain to a sample of children who were enrolled in kindergarten for the first time in the 2010–11 school year. In 2015–16, most of the children were in fifth grade, but 7.6 percent were in fourth grade or other grades (e.g., sixth grade, ungraded classrooms).
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010–11 (ECLS-K:2011), Kindergarten–Fifth Grade Restricted-Use Data File.


School administrators were also asked to report the prevalence of five problems in the neighborhood where the school is located. Crime in the neighborhood and selling or using drugs or excessive drinking in public were the two most commonly reported school neighborhood problems. Based on school administrator reports, 34 percent of fifth-graders attended schools where crime in the neighborhood was a problem, 31 percent attended schools where selling or using drugs or excessive drinking in public was a problem, 25 percent attended schools with violence in the neighborhood, 17 percent attended schools with gangs in the neighborhood, and 16 percent attended schools with tensions based on racial, ethnic, or religious differences in the neighborhood.

In spring 2016, the percentages of fifth-graders whose school administrators reported school and school neighborhood problems varied by student race/ethnicity. For instance, 36 percent of Black fifth-graders attended schools where physical conflicts among students occurred at school at least once a month, compared with 25 percent of Hispanic fifth-graders, 24 percent of fifth-graders of Two or more races, 23 percent of White fifth-graders, and 13 percent of Asian fifth-graders (table S2.1). Some 67 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native fifth-graders attended schools with the neighborhood problem of individuals selling or using drugs or excessive drinking in public. This was higher than the percentages for most other groups, ranging from 19 percent for Asian fifth-graders to 41 percent for Black fifth-graders; the only exception was that the percentage was not measurably different between American Indian/Alaska Native and Pacific Islander fifth-graders. Likewise, a higher percentage of American Indian/Alaska Native fifth-graders (32 percent) attended schools with the neighborhood problem of tensions based racial, ethnic, or religious differences than did fifth-graders of all other racial/ethnic groups (figure S2.2 and table S2.1).


Figure S2.2. Percentage of fifth-graders whose school administrator reported selected problems in the school’s neighborhood, by student race/ethnicity: Spring 2016

Figure S2.2. Percentage of fifth-graders whose school administrator reported selected problems in the school’s neighborhood, by student race/ethnicity: Spring 2016

! Interpret data with caution. The coefficient of variation (CV) for this estimate is between 30 and 50 percent.
‡ Reporting standards not met. Either there are too few cases for a reliable estimate or the coefficient of variation (CV) is 50 percent or greater.
1 For each problem, the school administrator could only choose one of four responses: “big problem,” “somewhat of a problem,” “no problem,” and “don’t know.” This figure shows the combined percentages for “big problem” and “somewhat of a problem.”
NOTE: Estimates weighted by W9C29P_9T90. Estimates pertain to a sample of children who were enrolled in kindergarten for the first time in the 2010–11 school year. In 2015–16, most of the children were in fifth grade, but 7.6 percent were in fourth grade or other grades (e.g., sixth grade, ungraded classrooms). Race categories exclude persons of Hispanic ethnicity. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010–11 (ECLS-K:2011), Kindergarten–Fifth Grade Restricted-Use Data File.


For each of the five reported school problems, a higher percentage of fifth-graders living in mother-only households had school administrators who reported the problem than did fifth-graders living in two-parent households. Similarly, higher percentages of fifth-graders living in mother-only households than of those living in two-parent households attended schools with the neighborhood problems of crime (42 vs. 32 percent), selling or using drugs or excessive drinking in public (38 vs. 29 percent), violence (31 vs. 23 percent), or gangs (23 vs. 15 percent; table S2.1).

In spring 2016, the percentages of fifth-graders whose school administrators reported school and school neighborhood problems tended to be higher for fifth-graders whose parents had lower levels of educational attainment. The percentage of fifth-graders attending schools with widespread disorder in classrooms occurring at least once a month was higher for those whose parents’ highest level of education was less than high school (8 percent) or high school completion (7 percent) than for those whose parents’ highest level of education was a bachelor’s degree or any graduate education (2 percent each; figure S2.3 and table S2.1). The same pattern can be observed for theft, physical conflicts among students, and student bullying, as well as for all five reported school neighborhood problems. For instance, the percentage of fifth-graders who attended schools where gangs were a problem in the neighborhood was higher for fifth-graders whose parents’ highest level of education was less than high school (44 percent) or high school completion (26 percent) than for those whose parents’ highest level of education was a bachelor’s degree (8 percent) or any graduate education (7 percent).


Figure S2.3. Percentage of fifth-graders whose school administrator reported that selected problems occurred at the school at least once a month or were a problem in the school’s neighborhood, by parents’ highest level of education: Spring 2016

Figure S2.3. Percentage  of fifth-graders whose school administrator reported that selected problems  occurred at the school at least once a month or were a problem in the school’s  neighborhood, by parents’ highest level of education: Spring 2016

! Interpret data with caution. The coefficient of variation (CV) for this estimate is between 30 and 50 percent.
1 For each problem, the school administrator could select only one response indicating how often the problem occurred at school. This figure shows the combined percentages for three responses—”happens daily,” “happens at least once a week,” and “happens at least once a month.”
2 For each problem, the school administrator could only choose one of four responses: “big problem,” “somewhat of a problem,” “no problem,” and “don’t know.” This figure shows the combined percentages for “big problem” and “somewhat of a problem.”
NOTE: Estimates weighted by W9C29P_9T90. Estimates pertain to a sample of children who were enrolled in kindergarten for the first time in the 2010–11 school year. In 2015–16, most of the children were in fifth grade, but 7.6 percent were in fourth grade or other grades (e.g., sixth grade, ungraded classrooms). Parents’ highest level of education is the highest level of education achieved by either of the parents or guardians in a two-parent household, by the only parent in a single-parent household, or by any guardian in a household with no parents. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010–11 (ECLS-K:2011), Kindergarten–Fifth Grade Restricted-Use Data File.


ECLS-K:11/16 includes measures of income which were used to derive three categories related to poverty. The first category is students from families with family incomes below the poverty level for a family of their size. The second category is students from families with family incomes between 100 to 199 percent of the poverty level. The final category is families with incomes at 200 percent or more of the poverty level. These categories are roughly comparable to measures of poverty using eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch, as the thresholds for free lunches and reduced-price lunches are 130 percent and 185 percent, respectively, of the poverty level. In spring 2016, it was generally more common for fifth-graders living in poverty and for those living at 100 to 199 percent of the poverty threshold to have school administrators who reported school and school neighborhood problems, compared with those living at 200 percent or more of the poverty threshold. For instance, 31 percent of fifth-graders living in poverty and 26 percent of those living at 100 to 199 percent of the poverty threshold attended schools where student bullying occurred at least once a month, compared with 21 percent of those living at 200 percent or more of the poverty threshold (figure S2.4 and table S2.1). Similarly, 52 percent of fifth-graders living in poverty and 40 percent of those living at 100 to 199 percent of the poverty threshold attended schools where crime was a problem in the school’s neighborhood, compared with 25 percent of those living at 200 percent or more of the poverty threshold.


Figure S2.4. Percentage of fifth-graders whose school administrator reported that selected problems occurred at the school at least once a month or were a problem in the school’s neighborhood, by household poverty status: Spring 2016

Figure S2.4. Percentage of fifth-graders whose school administrator reported that selected problems occurred at the school at least once a month or were a problem in the school’s neighborhood, by household poverty status: Spring 2016

1 For each problem, the school administrator could select only one response indicating how often the problem occurred at school. This figure shows the combined percentages for three responses—”happens daily,” “happens at least once a week,” and “happens at least once a month.”
2 For each problem, the school administrator could choose only one of four responses: “big problem,” “somewhat of a problem,” “no problem,” and “don’t know.” This figure shows the combined percentages for “big problem” and “somewhat of a problem.”
NOTE: Estimates weighted by W9C29P_9T90. Estimates pertain to a sample of children who were enrolled in kindergarten for the first time in the 2010–11 school year. In 2015–16, most of the children were in fifth grade, but 7.6 percent were in fourth grade or other grades (e.g., sixth grade, ungraded classrooms). Poverty status is based on U.S. Census Bureau income thresholds for 2015, which identify incomes determined to meet household needs, given family size and composition. For example, a family of three with one child was below the poverty threshold if its income was less than $19,078 in 2015.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010–11 (ECLS-K:2011), Kindergarten–Fifth Grade Restricted-Use Data File.


In spring 2016, there were few differences by school locale in the percentages of fifth-graders whose school administrators reported problems at school at least once a month but a larger number of differences in reported problems in the school neighborhood. Higher percentages of fifth-graders who were enrolled in schools in cities attended schools with the reported problems of crime and violence in the neighborhood than did fifth-graders in other locales. However, the percentage of students attending schools where selling or using drugs or excessive drinking in public was reported as a problem in the neighborhood was lower only in suburban areas (23 percent) compared with the other three locales, where the percentages ranged from 35 to 36 percent. Some measurable differences by locale were observed for two out of the five school problem areas. The percentage of fifth-graders attending schools where student bullying occurred at school at least once a month was higher for those enrolled in schools in towns (39 percent) than for those enrolled in schools in cities (25 percent), rural areas (24 percent), and suburban areas (20 percent); also, the percentage of fifth-graders attending schools where physical conflicts among students occurred at school at least once a month was higher for those enrolled in schools in towns (38 percent) than for those enrolled in schools in rural areas (20 percent; table S2.1).

School and school neighborhood problems and academic skills

In spring 2016, fifth-graders were directly assessed in reading, mathematics, and science.3 These assessment data allow for an examination of the relationships between school and school neighborhood problems and students’ academic achievement. Possible scores range from 0 to 167 for reading, from 0 to 159 for mathematics, and from 0 to 100 for science.

In spring 2016, fifth-graders whose school administrators reported that certain school problems occurred at least once a month generally had lower scores in reading, mathematics, and science than did those whose school administrators reported that the problem never occurred. For example, the mean reading score for fifth-graders attending schools where theft occurred at least once a month was 135 points, compared with 139 points for those attending schools where theft never occurred (table S2.2).4 The only exceptions among the five school problem areas were that there were no measurable differences in the reading or mathematics mean scores between fifth-graders attending schools where bullying occurred at least once a month and those attending schools where bullying never occurred; in addition, there was no measurable difference in the mathematics mean scores for vandalism of school property.

For all five school neighborhood problems reported by school administrators, fifth-graders attending schools where these were a big problem or somewhat of a problem consistently had lower scores in reading, mathematics, and science than did those whose school administrators reported that their school did not experience the neighborhood problem. For instance, in mathematics, the mean score for fifth-graders attending schools where crime in the neighborhood was a problem was 117 points, compared with a mean score of 123 points for those attending schools where crime in the neighborhood was not a problem (figure S2.5 and table S2.2).


Figure S2.5. Fifth-graders’ mean mathematics scale scores, by extent of selected school neighborhood problems reported by school administrator: Spring 2016

Figure S2.5. Fifth-graders’  mean mathematics scale scores, by extent of selected school neighborhood  problems reported by school administrator: Spring 2016

NOTE: Reflects performance on questions on number sense, properties, and operations; measurement; geometry and spatial sense; data analysis, statistics, and probability; and prealgebra skills such as identification of patterns. The mathematics assessment was designed to measure skills in conceptual knowledge, procedural knowledge, and problem solving. Possible scores for the mathematics assessment range from 0 to 159. Estimates weighted by W9C29P_9T90. Estimates pertain to a sample of children who were enrolled in kindergarten for the first time in the 2010–11 school year. In 2015–16, most of the children were in fifth grade, but 7.6 percent were in fourth grade or other grades (e.g., sixth grade, ungraded classrooms). For each school neighborhood problem, the school administrator could choose only one of four responses: “big problem,” “somewhat of a problem,” “no problem,” and “don’t know.” This figure combines the responses “big problem” and “somewhat of a problem” and omits the category for “don’t know.”
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010–11 (ECLS-K:2011), Kindergarten–Fifth Grade Restricted-Use Data File.


Positive feelings about school, by nature of school and school neighborhood problems

ECLS-K:11/16 also collected data directly from the students about their positive feelings about school. Students were asked about the following: feeling like they fit in at school, feeling close to classmates at school, feeling close to teachers at school, enjoying being at school, and feeling safe at school. This spotlight focuses on when students responded “always” to these questions.

In spring 2016, for many of the questions about students’ positive feelings about school, students’ responses were not related to the frequency or extent of their school administrator-reported problems in the schools and school neighborhoods. However, the percentages of fifth-graders who reported always feeling close to classmates were lower for those attending schools where vandalism of school property or widespread disorder in classrooms occurred at least once a month than for those attending schools where these problems never occurred (table S2.3). Similarly, the percentage of fifth-graders who reported always feeling safe at school was lower for those attending schools where physical conflicts among students occurred at least once a month (65 percent) than for those attending schools where this problem never occurred (75 percent), and the percentages of fifth-graders who reported always feeling safe at school were lower for students attending schools where each of the five types of reported school neighborhood problems were a big problem or somewhat of a problem than for those attending schools where these problems were not a problem (figure S2.6 and table S2.3).


Figure S2.6. Percentage of fifth-graders who reported always feeling safe at school, by frequency or extent of selected school and school neighborhood problems reported by school administrator: Spring 2016

Figure S2.6. Percentage of fifth-graders who reported always feeling safe at school, by frequency or extent of selected school and school neighborhood problems reported by school administrator: Spring 2016

1 For each problem, the school administrator could select only one response indicating how often the problem occurred at school. The percentages for three responses—”happens daily,” “happens at least once a week,” and “happens at least once a month”—are combined into the category “at least once a month.”
2 For each problem, the school administrator could only choose one of four responses: “big problem,” “somewhat of a problem,” “no problem,” and “don’t know.” This figure shows the combined percentages for “big problem” and “somewhat of a problem” and omits the percentages for “don’t know.”
NOTE: Estimates weighted by W9C29P_9T90. Estimates pertain to a sample of children who were enrolled in kindergarten for the first time in the 2010–11 school year. In 2015–16, most of the children were in fifth grade, but 7.6 percent were in fourth grade or other grades (e.g., sixth grade, ungraded classrooms).
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010–11 (ECLS-K:2011), Kindergarten–Fifth Grade Restricted-Use Data File.


This spotlight indicator features data on a selected issue of current policy interest. For more information: Tables S2.1, S2.2, and S2.3.


1 In this spotlight, fall 2010 first-time kindergarteners are referred to as “fifth-graders,” even if they were enrolled in a different grade in the spring of 2016. In spring 2016 most of the fall 2010 first-time kindergartners were in fifth grade, but 7.6 percent were in fourth grade or other grades (e.g., sixth grade, ungraded classrooms). Off-grade status could relate to many of the variables explored in this report, which is a consideration the reader should keep in mind.
2 For each reported school neighborhood problem, the percentage of fifth-graders whose school administrators selected the explicit “don’t know” option ranged from 10 to 13 percent.
3 The reading assessment includes questions measuring basic skills (e.g., word recognition); vocabulary knowledge; and reading comprehension, including identifying information specifically stated in text (e.g., definitions, facts, and supporting details), making complex inferences within texts, and considering the text objectively and judging its appropriateness and quality. The mathematics assessment includes questions on number sense, properties, and operations; measurement; geometry and spatial sense; data analysis, statistics, and probability; and prealgebra skills such as identification of patterns. The mathematics assessment was designed to measure skills in conceptual knowledge, procedural knowledge, and problem solving. The science assessment includes questions on physical sciences, life sciences, Earth and space sciences, and scientific inquiry.
4 Note, however, that comparisons of assessment scores for students whose school administrator reported different frequencies of school problems do not account for other potentially related factors and cannot be used to establish a cause-and-effect relationship.