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National report: State still ranks No. 50 for child wellbeing

DAILY LEADER / KATIE WILLIAMSON

DAILY LEADER / KATIE WILLIAMSON

A national study by Kids Count was released this week that places Mississippi at the bottom of the barrel for overall child wellbeing. For the 24th time, the state has been rated 50th by the Annie E. Casey Foundation study.

The state rankings are derived by research focused on each state’s economics, health, education, families and communities, which together give an overall view of children’s wellbeing.

According to the study’s mission statement, the Kids Count research is published to provoke change and improve outcomes for children, families and communities as a whole.

Nationally, 23 percent of children are living in poverty, 29 out of every 1,000 teens are pregnant and 19 percent of high school students are not graduating on time.

In Mississippi 35 percent of children are living in poverty, 46 out of every 1,000 teens are pregnant and 32 percent of high school students are not graduating on time.

Copiah, Franklin, Lawrence and Lincoln counties came out with statistics that were similar to the average Mississippi rankings. The four counties are averaging 33.25 percent of children living in poverty, 13.32 percent of teens are pregnant and there is a 15.5 percent dropout rate.

“These rankings reinforce the crucial importance of promoting evidence-based policies to improve children’s outcomes,” said Linda Southward, Mississippi Kids Count director in a press release. “We have a tremendous opportunity to make positive long term impacts by investing early in children’s well-being. The recent passage of Pre-K legislation is a small step in the right direction.”

Southward is referring to the first pre-kindergarten collaboratives that were approved by Mississippi this year joining the ranks of 41 other states that have already been funding these types of initiatives. According to Mississippi First, an advocacy group for pre-K, research has been proven that early childhood education can help close the achievement gaps and raise the achievements of all students.

Mississippi officials have not been fully funding other education initiatives that would influence the Kids Count rankings, such as The Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Since 1997, the state legislature has been legally obligated to fund the program that would place each school district at budget level that is deemed adequate for successful achievement. Since MAEP’s creation, Mississippi schools have only been fully funded twice.

Many Brookhavenites have taken children’s issues into their own hands trying to address the same issues that have been pointed out by Kids Count.

“There are efforts being made around this town to do everything we can,” said Karen Sullivan, Brookhaven alderman at Large. “I know the efforts are being made.”

Sullivan is part of several local organizations that specifically target some of the issues. For example, she is a leader in the Healthy Hometown Committee, which promotes healthy lifestyles for Brookhaven residents and she is on the Brookhaven Public School Dropout Prevention Committee, which looks for causes and possible solutions for local dropout rates. These are only two of several different initiatives being made around town.

“Surveys like this make us want to keep striving; they make us want to do more,” said Sullivan.

Even though being last is an unfortunate position, Mississippi has improved on the state level in some areas. According to Mississippi Kids Count, there has been an increase in the number of children with health insurance, a decrease in children who abuse alcohol or drugs, a decrease in child and teen deaths and a decrease in teen pregnancies.

In education, Mississippi has shown improvements in preschool attendance, fourth graders’ reading levels and eighth graders’ math proficiency. Also, a higher number of parents hold a high school diploma.

“We have been making conscious efforts to get ourselves off the bottom,” said Sullivan. She added, that although Mississippi is ranked last in many areas, that is not to say there have not been improvements throughout the years and that other states have not also improved in many areas.

Brookhaven continues to battle issues affecting local youth. Schools, churches and local organizations have been targeting the children in the community, and after-school and summer programs are making a significant impact.

“We provide a safe haven for kids when they leave school, so children are not left at home while a parent is at work,” said Melanie Lewis, director of the Boys and Girls Club of Lincoln County.

Lewis has been working with local youth in some capacity for more than 25 years. She has worked with the Brookhaven School District, Boys and Girls Club and the Mississippi Adolescent Center.

Lewis said her greatest joy comes from seeing children improve. “When I see a child going down a wrong path, I like to steer them back on track,” said Lewis. “Making a difference in a child’s life is a gift in itself.”

The Boys and Girls Club is a resource for local parents and students of all ages. The organization helps with homework, takes students to academic presentations, involves children in community service, invites guest speakers and is a safe place while guardians are working. Lewis said that the children really love being there. She added that all school-age students are welcome, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“Once you know what the problem is, you can begin to identify a solution,” said Lewis, referring to the recent study.

Throughout her years of experience with Brookhaven youth, Lewis said that she feels one of the biggest issues facing the local community is the lack of partnership between some parents and teachers/mentors.

“It takes all of us coming together to fight against these problems,” said Lewis.

The Boys and Girls Club promotes academic success, leadership and citizenship. Lewis said she can see improvements that the organization makes in lives by the child’s later successes.

Even though the outlook is grim when the statistics are taken at face value, Brookhaven and Mississippi are continually fighting to improve conditions for youth.

“Brookhaven is really good about taking care of ourselves,” said Lewis. “This is a really giving community.”