Data on city kids highlights advances, areas to improve

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The statistics may define the situation but, in the opinion of Lela Coons, it in no way reflects what young Warwick mothers are like.

“We have marvelous parents,” she told representatives from a cross section of city non-profits and agencies that deal with children Thursday morning at the Warwick Public Library.

The occasion was the annual “Warwick Data in Your Backyard,” a report prepared by KIDSCOUNT that looks at information about Warwick children and contrasts it to the state and other communities. The report found that there were 188 Warwick teen births between 2008 and 2012 and that 20 of these births were repeat teen births.

“The outcomes are not that different [than the state],” said John Neubauer, who gave the presentation. “It’s kind of a ripe area to look at. The moms are not connected to schools.”

Coons asked if there is some way of encouraging these young mothers and telling them what a good job they are doing. She thought some form of gathering could provide an opportunity to outline services and programs they would be eligible for. She also thought it would give teen parents the chance to focus on what’s good about their lives.

Neubauer highlighted that mothers under 20 year old, unmarried and without a high school diploma, have children that are more likely to grow up in poverty and suffer from abuse and less likely to be ready for school and complete high school. Of the 290 Rhode Island babies born last year to mothers with all three risk factors, 12 were from Warwick.

“By targeting resources you can really have a major impact,” he said.

Coons is a long-time advocate for children and is one of the organizers of the Warwick Coalition to Prevent Child Abuse. They prompted KIDSCOUNT to annually break out the Warwick numbers from its larger state report. Coons and her husband, Dix, adopted five children. Now 80 years old, Coons follows issues affecting children and can often be found at School Committee meetings or the committee rooms of the State House.

In welcoming remarks, Mayor Scott Avedisian said the report illustrates “what it is like to be a kid in Warwick.” He said he found the statistics “very comforting.” He also talked about recent anonymous threats to elementary school students and how many of the groups represented in the audience come together in responding to such a threat.

As for the numbers in the report, they provide a measurement “to keep us doing what we’re doing.”

Generally, across the board, Warwick data looked better than the state data. Warwick mothers from 2008 to 2012 had higher levels of education, with 46 percent with a bachelor’s degree or above, compared to 35 percent for the state. Neubauer pointed out there are strong links between parent education levels and a child’s health and education. He noted that 34 percent of Warwick children came from low-income families in 2012, as compared to 79 percent in the core cities and 47 percent statewide.

Within the sector of economic well-being, the report found that only 18 percent of eligible low-income in Warwick participated in the school breakfast program in 2013, a number that is lower than Cranston, at 41 percent, and the state average of 39 percent.

Neubauer said students who eat breakfast have higher math and reading scores, fewer absences, improved attentiveness and lower incidences of social and behavioral problems.

Warwick Rep. Joseph McNamara, chair of the House Health Education and Welfare committee and a retired educator, said correlations could be made between school achievement, poverty and attendance.

“If students don’t have their basic needs met, basic learning won’t take place,” he said.

He called “food insecurity” a problem, adding that he has never seen it at the level it is today.

In the segment on child safety, Neubauer said the numbers of juveniles referred to family court and the training school have been on the decline statewide. In 2013 a total of 17 Warwick youth went through the training school.

“This is a success story,” he said.

Child abuse and neglect is another area where Warwick performs well. The report found 7.6 children per 1,000 children are victims of abuse and neglect as compared to 14 statewide and 8.7 in Cranston.

Warwick’s reading and math skills at fourth grade showed improvement, which prompted the audience to applaud Superintendent Richard D’Agostino and other members of the school administration in the audience.

School attendance is also measured in the report. A total of 234 children in grades K-3 were chronically absent for the 2012-13 academic year. The percentage jumps to 15 percent for Warwick junior high school students and 21 percent of senior high school students who missed 18 or more days in the year.

“A number of parents are not aware their kids are not in school,” said McNamara.

As a school administrator in Pawtucket, McNamara said staff members were instructed to call parents within 45 minutes after the child was discovered absent. He said 50 percent of the parents didn’t know that was the situation and many reached their children on their cell phones.

Sara Monaco of the Warwick School Department said Warwick schools is working on a program that would similarly notify parents that their child is absent.

As the group discussed the report, other means of improving outcomes for youths came to the fore. Chantelle Dosremedios of Westbay Community Action and the mother of five talked of the remarkable difference in the learning capability between that child that attended pre-K and the one who didn’t. The report found 6 percent of Warwick children ages 3 to 4 were enrolled in Head Start and another 2 percent under 3 were enrolled in early Head Start in 2013.

As for full-day kindergarten, 11 percent of Warwick children were enrolled in full-day K. Lynn Dambruch, director of elementary education, said that number should jump dramatically in next year’s report as the department is now operating nine full-day K classes.

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