Setbacks, gains for state's children

By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

Mississippi still trails the nation in key measures of child and family well-being, but there are glimmers of hope.
Mississippi ranked 50th in the annual Kids Count Databook released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Baltimore-based foundation expanded its report from 10 to 16 indicators, breaking them down into four areas – economic well-being, education, health and family and community.
Mississippi saw gains on several fronts, including child mortality rates and measures of reading and math proficiency. In the education and health areas, the state ranked 48th.
However, increases in the rates of children living in poverty, parents without jobs and teen births continue to plague the state.
“We’re not where we need to be, but Mississippi is showing improvement,” said Mississippi State University researcher Linda Southward, who serves as director for Mississippi Kids Count, which works with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to gather data and spotlight Mississippi success stories that can be replicated.
Nationally, the databook paints a picture of children and families that are struggling economically.
“Even since the official end of the recession, more kids are living in poverty,” said Patrick McCarthy, president of the Casey Foundation.
The Casey Foundation is advocating a two-generation strategy and urging lawmakers to make smart investments in children and families as they grapple with state revenues that haven’t quite returned to pre-recession levels and the specter of federal cuts.
“If we’re going to be competitive in a global market, we have to close the gap,” McCarthy said.
Education gains
Mississippi has seen improving rates of fourth-graders who are reading proficiently over the past several years.
“Yes, we are growing,” said Claiborne Barksdale, chief executive of the Barksdale Reading Institute and a adviser to the Mississippi Building Blocks. “Are we growing fast enough? No.”
In a national test given to samplings of fourth-graders around the country, only 22 percent of Mississippi students and 32 percent of students nationally were reading proficiently in 2010.
“We know this is a key pivot point,” McCarthy said. “If they’re not reading well at the end of third grade, it’s increasingly difficult for them to catch up.”
It will take a concerted effort by schools, parents and the broader community starting long before a child ever starts kindergarten.
“We really need comprehensive, collaborative early care and education across Mississippi,” Southward said. “It’s a very tall hill for Mississippi.”
Blueprint Mississippi, developed under the umbrella of the Mississippi Economic Council, calls for investments in early childhood education and measures to strengthen Mississippi’s public schools and its educators.
Poverty is a barrier to success, but not an insurmountable one, Barksdale said. Over the past three years, the Barksdale Reading Institute has worked with four challenged districts and seen gains.
“We can do it, but we’ve got to have really bright people on the job,” he said.
Educating adults
Even though Mississippi saw increases in two measures related to the high school dropout rate, there was a decrease in the number of households led by someone who didn’t have a high school diploma or GED.
“People 25 and up are realizing they are not able to support their families,” without a diploma or GED, said Jan West, director of adult basic education and GED testing for Itawamba Community College. “Secondary credentials open up doors” to education and careers.
Over the past several years, ICC has averaged between 500 and 600 GED graduates a year, West said.
Improving the parents’ economic opportunities stabilizes the entire family and is a key in breaking cycles of poverty, said both national and local child advocates.
“Parents are going to set the example for the next generation,” West said. “That is the key to so many other things.”
Child mortality
The state’s teen and child death rates dropped from 52 per 100,000 children in 2005 to 47 per 100,000 in 2009. That’s still substantially above the national rate of 27 per 100,000 children.
Part of that improvement may be greater willingness to report child abuse, said Christi Webb, executive director of the Family Resource Center of Northeast Mississippi, which houses one of Mississippi’s four Child Advocacy Centers.
“Last year, the four child advocacy centers conducted 1,800 interviews,” said Webb, whose center was highlighted as a Kids Count Mississippi success story. “We’ve already done more this year than last year.”
michaela.morris@journalinc.com

Graphics with more information in today’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.