KIDS COUNT: Grads, babies doing better

Mississippi is showing improvement in education and infant mortality, according to a national report released today.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation 2010 Kids Count data book showed that Mississippi had fewer teens who were out of school without a diploma and more babies who survived their first year.
“We can as a state elevate outcomes in Mississippi,” said Linda Southward, a professor with the Mississippi State University Social Science Research Center, who serves as Mississippi Kids Count coordinator.
Even with the bright spots, children’s advocates at the state and national levels were alarmed at the growing number of children in poverty.
“Between 2000 and 2008, 1 million more children were living in poverty, and the data doesn’t reflect the full impact of the recession,” said Laura Beavers, national Kids Count coordinator.
Mississippi has three times as many children living in poverty – an annual income of $21,834 or less for a family of four – as New Hampshire, which had the lowest number. Mississippi’s percentage of children in poverty also increased at more than twice the national rate between 2000 and 2008.
“More than 30 percent of our kids live in poverty,” Southward said. “It’s more than double the national rate.”
Because of budget deficits, states have been dramatically cutting programs that help low income families.
“There are more challenges at the same time there are less resources,” Southward said, leaving communities to try and pick up the slack. “We do see where communities are making differences in children’s lives” even in the difficult economic times.
Between 2000 and 2008, the number of teens 16 to 19 who were not in school and did not have a high school diploma dropped from 15 to 7 percent in Mississippi. That improvement was enough to move the state off the bottom of the list and into a tie for 25th.
“Mississippi accomplished that in less than a decade,” Southward said. “It’s not only a reflection of increased awareness, but of a grassroots effort statewide.”
The Kids Count status dropout rate is different from the dropout rate tracked by the Mississippi Department of Education – which was 16 percent for the Class of 2008.
The Kids Count numbers come from the U.S. Census department data, through its American Community Survey, and includes teens who got a GED from a program outside a public high school and those currently enrolled in GED or other training programs outside the public high schools.
The Mississippi Department of Education statistics count every student enrolled in Mississippi public high schools. However, U.S. Education Department guidelines for counting graduates do not allow the public schools to count students who receive GEDs from outside programs.
Because of further adjustments to the way dropouts are counted, the dropout rate for the Class of 2009 has fluctuated to 16.8 percent, according to statistics released last week by state Superintendent Tom Burnham.
“It’s in line with trend we see at the department,” said spokesman Pete Smith. “That fewer and fewer kids are dropping out. … Ultimately we want all of them to graduate.”
The Kids Count numbers are very encouraging and reflect a broad effort to work on the problem, said IHL Commissioner Hank Bounds, who made dropout prevention one of the centerpiece initiatives of his tenure as state superintendent of education.
“Schools, community colleges and private organizations understand the real connection between the future of our state and education level of our citizenry,” Bounds said. “It’s the real culmination of so many different organizations working together … Am I satisfied? No. But I do think we’re getting more kids on the bus and across the finish line.”
Although Mississippi remained 50th in infant mortality, the state’s rate of infant deaths during the first year of life improved at a faster rate than the national average.
In 2007, Mississippi had 10.0 infant deaths for every 1,000 live births, improving 7 percent between 2000 and 2007. The national average was 6.7 deaths for every 1,000 live births, which improved only 3 percent between 2000 and 2007.
The state is continuing to incrementally improve. The 2008 infant mortality rate dropped slightly to 9.9 deaths per 1,000 births.
The gains were even more impressive considering Mississippi saw its percent of low birthweight babies increase from 10.7 percent to 12.3 percent. Low birthweight babies – those under 51/2 pounds at birth – are among those at highest risk as a group for dying during their first year of life.
Contact Michaela Gibson Morris at (662) 678-1599 or michaela.morris@djournal.com.

Michaela Morris/Daily Journal