Every step counts for our kids

Published 11:59 pm Friday, June 24, 2016

I remember the first Kids Count Data book that arrived at the newspaper. It landed with a thud on the desk, and I spent the next hour diving into the statistics and rankings, shuddering at the analytical evidence that showed just how much we are failing our children in Alabama.

The annual report is produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and reviews 16 indicators of child well being in the key areas of economic, educational, health and family and community. It is equal parts informative and worrisome, and almost overwhelming in the volume of information it compiles.

When the data arrived via email this year, there was no thud on the desk. But it hit us, just like a brick once again.

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For the second straight year, Alabama has dropped in the national ranking that quantifies the physical, educational and economic health of children across America. We fell to 46th in the nation – pacing well behind 45 other states and only slightly ahead of four.

While Alabama has improved in seven of the 16 indicators since 2008, we continue to fall in the rankings. In 2014, Alabama was 44th; in 2015, 45th; this year, well, 46th.

And that decline is cause for concern.

One of the biggest factors behind the concern lies in the percentage of children living in poverty, which has increased to 27 percent from some 21 percent in 2008.  That means more than one in four of our state’s children live in poverty, a staggering statistic that informs every other aspect of those children’s lives, from emotional stability to educational opportunities to access to health care.

We see the poverty every day right here in Pike County: the large percentage of children on free or reduced lunch programs, whose only hot meals during the day might come from breakfast and lunch at school; the children each year whose school supplies are provided by charitable donations and generous PTOs; the teenagers, who drop out of school because they have to find a job and help support their families; the children with limited access to health care or enhanced educational opportunities.

But we rarely connect the faces in school lunch programs with the reality of statistical rankings. When you consider the breakdown of our state’s ranking among the four key categories, the results are equally as alarming. Alabama ranks 46th in economic well-being for children; 48th in education; 42 in health; and 43 in family and community.

Drill deeper and the alarm bells ring more loudly: 71 percent of our state’s fourth-graders are not proficient in reading; 83 percent of our eighth-graders are not proficient in math; 40 percent of our state’s children live in single-parent families; and 34 percent have parents who lack secure employment. And in all of these categories, Alabama trails well behind the national average.

It is easy to get lost in the weeds with the statistics and rankings  – particularly given the volume provided by the Kids Count studies.

Instead, we need to look past the numbers to the solutions: what can we do, as individuals; as business and civic leaders; and a state, to stem the slide for Alabama’s children?

Programs like the state funded First Class Pre-K effort are a state. The program provides grants for schools and day care centers to offer state-funded, free preschool programs. In Pike County, New Live Christian Academy, OCAP, the Pike County Schools (Banks, Goshen and Pike County Elementary), and the Christian Love Center used this program to provide school readiness and education to hundreds of preschoolers.

Other programs, like the Summer Feeding Program supported by the City of Troy, provide thousands of much-needed meals to hungry children throughout the summer. Non-profit programs like the Boys and Girls Club provide mentoring, tutoring, educational experiences for hundreds of children in need.

Small steps, yes, but every small step can make a difference.

And when it comes to our kids, those small steps count.

Stacy G. Graning is publisher of The Messenger. Contact her at stacy.graning@troymessenger.com.