Positive trends in Factbook on RI’s kids

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Rhode Island KIDS COUNT released its 2014 Factbook this week, celebrating 20 years of providing data in nearly 70 different areas related to children.

The annual report is often used to craft legislation and policy changes affecting youth.

The report – an inch-thick volume packed with charts and graphs – was released during a breakfast at the Crowne Plaza attended by about 500 policy makers and community leaders from government and the areas of education, health and human services.

“For 20 years, we have come together to release the annual Factbook, to take stock of how Rhode Island’s children are doing, and to recommit ourselves to the urgent work of leveling the playing field so all of Rhode Island’s children have the chance to reach their full potential,” said Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT.

Bryant cited an increase in the high school graduation rate and a decrease in the juvenile crime and youth sentenced to the Training School as positive changes from last year.

The state has also had a strong track record in positive health indicators, such as low rates of child and teen deaths, and a high percentage of children covered by health insurance.

“The information presented in the 2014 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook can help our state leaders and policy makers learn what is working, as well as to make well-informed program and policy decisions that support the well-being of all children in Rhode Island,” said Bryant.

During the breakfast, Kinte Howie of Young Voices Rhode Island and Jann Jackson, senior associate and policy reform and advocacy of the national Annie E. Casey Foundation, also spoke.

Anthony Maione, president and CEO of United Way, praised the organization for its integrity and for 20 years of delivering credible data to help improve conditions for all children.

As keynote speaker, Jackson applauded KIDS COUNT for continuously providing data that have led to so many positive changes. Often times, the information is used as solid proof that issues do exist and brings on positive change, such as a tremendous reduction in childhood lead poisoning.

“This is a public day of accountability,” she said, “a day when we ask how are our children doing.”

Jackson lauded Rhode Island KIDS COUNT as a leader in the country. She said the numbers cut beyond ideology and antidotes.

“We need to understand the data,” she added, as the basis for communication, development of policy and bringing people together.

Jackson said the data show how children are healthier because of the actions taken to see they have health insurance.

Speaking about this country as a whole, she said, “We have everything we need to meet the basic needs of children. Our job now is to pay it forward for all kids.”

She urged her audience to advocate for children and to be engaged.

“You can’t sit this one out,” she said.

This year’s Factbook included two new indicators to provide even more insight into the education of children and their families. The report now includes data on evidence-based home visiting to track the number of families enrolled in the program through the Rhode Island Department of Health. As of October 2013, 288 families were enrolled in the state, with only one Cranston family enrolled.

The other new indicator is children enrolled in State Pre-K. Rhode Island’s state program is one of only four in the country to meet all recommended quality benchmarks, improving children’s language and literary skills and closing the achievement gap. There are a total of 234 children enrolled in State Pre-K, about 2 percent of Rhode Island 4-year-olds. There are no Cranston children in State Pre-K programs.

There were a number of highlights from this year’s Factbook, as well as concerns, indicated by KIDS COUNT in a press release regarding this year’s report. Overall, the attitude regarding this year’s data was positive for all five categories: family and community, economic well-being, health, safety and education.

For starters, the overall child population in Rhode Island has continued to decline. Between 2000 and 2012, the child population decreased 12 percent, from 247,822 to 216,962. Rhode Island also has the fifth lowest birth rate in the country.

In Cranston, the child population decreased from 17,098 in 2000 to 16,414 in 2010.

Burke spotlighted early childhood education and full-day kindergarten during her remarks. There have been improvements in the area, she said, but there needs to be more.

According to their report, as of January 2014, there were 209 active early care and education programs with a BrightStars quality rating, up from 169 in January 2013. Sixty percent of early learning centers had a high-quality rating of four or five stars, and 5 percent of family care homes had achieved four or five stars. Cranston has one childcare center and 16 family care homes with a Brightstars quality rating.

School year 2013-14 saw 70 percent of Rhode Island kindergarteners enrolled in full-day kindergarten programs, compared to only 18 percent in school year 1999-2000. Cranston does not yet have any full-day programs.

Staying with early education, KIDS COUNT reported insufficient access to Early Head Start and Head Start programs in the state. In October 2013, 256 eligible pregnant women and children between newborn and 3 years old were on waiting lists for Early Head Start, and 699 preschool children were on wait lists for Head Start.

One trend noted by the report is an increase in the number of grandparents serving as primary caregivers. According to data, between 2010 and 2012, 6,400 grandparents reported being financially responsible for their grandchildren, with two-thirds having been so for three or more years. In Cranston, the percentage of children living with grandparents is equal to the state average, 6 percent.

The report also highlighted the importance of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); participation in the program by children increased 54 percent between 2008 and 2013 (41,421 to 63,971 children). Cranston saw a slight decrease in SNAP participation, down to 3,728 in 2013 from 3,898 in 2012.

There was also a slight rise in the percentage of low-income children participating in free School Breakfast programs in the state, from 35 percent in 2012 to 37 percent in 2013. It is believed the increase can be attributed to the start of Universal School Breakfast, which provides free morning meals to all students. Fifty-one percent of low-income students took part in universal programs at their schools, compared to only 22 percent at schools with non-universal programs.

Cranston schools saw a large increase in participation in the school breakfast programs. In 2012, only 28 percent of income-eligible students received free breakfast; in 2013, 40 percent took advantage of the program.

Rhode Island continued to see positive health outcomes such as high rates of children covered by health insurance, high rates of immunization and increased access to dental care. The five-year average teen birth rate also decreased 24 percent, from 30.7 per 1,000 (2004-08) to 23.3 per 1,000 (2008-12).

Cranston saw a slight decrease in the annual teen birth rate, to 17.6 per 1,000 girls in 2013 compared with 19.6 per 1,000 in 2012.

One of the more prominent health concerns remained the amount of teens reporting the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. According to the Factbook, 31 percent of teens drank alcohol and 8 percent smoked cigarettes in a month. The 2014 Factbook is the first to address prescription drug use, with 3 percent of middle school students and 13 percent of high school students admitting to using prescription drugs without doctors’ orders.

For Cranston middle school students, 6 percent reported current alcohol use, 2 percent reported current cigarette use, 5 percent reported using marijuana, and 3 percent reported using prescription drugs. For Cranston high school students, 31 percent reported current alcohol use, 12 percent reported current cigarette use, 40 percent reported using marijuana, and 16 percent reported using prescription drugs.

Burke specifically mentioned the decline in children involved in Rhode Island’s juvenile justice system as one of many indicators moving in the right direction. It was reported that between 2007 and 2013, the number of youths referred to Family Court for wayward and delinquent offenses decreased by 45 percent, and juvenile offenses decreased by 40 percent. The annual number of youths in the training school also declined from 1,069 to 498 between 2004 and 2013. In 2013, there were 29 Cranston youths at the training school.

John Howell contributed to this report.

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