Early childhood education stressed
Community leaders hear report on welfare of city’s children
Rhode Island KIDS COUNT data on the well-being of Warwick’s children prompted a number of the city’s leaders to take notice of issues, especially early education needs.
Last Thursday, a number of community leaders and policy makers attended KIDS COUNT’s presentation on the well-being of Warwick’s children, based on data from the organization’s annual Fact Book. The presentation covered statistics in the areas of family and community, economic well-being, health, safety and education, with the need for early education improvements causing the most discussion.
Attendees at the event, which was held at the Warwick Public Library, included Representative Joseph McNamara, Mayor Scott Avedisian, School Committee member Eugene Nadeau, Superintendent Dr. Richard D’Agostino, and President and CEO of The Kent Center Dave Lauterbach. Also present were representatives from a number of community support organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club, Kent County YMCA, Westbay Community Action, Warwick School Department Title 1 office, and more. The presentation was co-sponsored by the Warwick Coalition to Prevent Child Abuse.
“I like the fact that the data they [KIDS COUNT] have is very accurate and that it breaks the data down to what is happening in our community,” said McNamara in a follow-up phone interview.
McNamara said he is always interested in data that explains the well-being of children in the state, especially in the realms of education and children living in poverty.
“Many people think Warwick is a suburban, middle-class, even affluent area, but we have seen increases in the number of children living in poverty,” said the representative.
McNamara took a particular interest in the data referring to early education, preschool and kindergarten, especially with the recent cuts to Early Head Start and Head Start programs due to the sequester.
“If we look at the latest developments and research, [it] has proven that early intervention, high-quality preschools can ramp-up children born in poverty,” said McNamara, citing one study he saw that showed a good preschool experience that works on one’s language skills can double a child’s vocabulary.
McNamara said children without access to these important and valuable early education programs will enter kindergarten with a “significant deficit.”
“Sometimes they never make it up,” added McNamara.
A scary fact McNamara shared came out of a higher education conference he attended in Colorado. He found out that some communities use third grade test scores to predict the future need for expansion at prisons. McNamara said the test scores combined with poverty rates and minorities can be very reflective of the number of individuals in the training school or at the ACI (Adult Correctional Institutions).
McNamara then compared putting in the effort to support early education and prevent these future trends to a saying his mother used to tell him.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he said.
McNamara hopes to put in that ounce of prevention with the General Assembly; as chair of the Education Committee, he said one of his major concerns this upcoming session will be advocating funds specifically for preschool and all-day kindergarten programs.
“It’s very important, especially for those children entering schools,” said McNamara.
During the KIDS COUNT event, McNamara and D’Agostino had the opportunity to discuss the importance of creating an all-day kindergarten program in the school system.
“We cannot implement Common Core properly without an all-day program,” said D’Agostino, taking the opportunity to explain that implementing an all-day kindergarten is one of the reasons a long-term committee was formed to look at consolidating schools. One of the obstacles in the way of implementing the transition to all-day K is funding, something D’Agostino said McNamara could be helpful with back at the General Assembly.
“When we look at aligning kindergarten with the Common Core, is would be difficult, even impossible, to do with the current model,” said McNamara.
D’Agostino said the School Department does track many of the statistics mentioned by KIDS COUNT, and he did agree that early childhood education is becoming increasingly important to the district.
“If you catch the problems early, it should help down the line with elementary school all the way to graduation,” said D’Agostino.
McNamara will also work to restore funding to area Head Start programs so they will be able to help more children.
“That’s disturbing,” said McNamara, referring to some Head Start programs needing to cut children from their programs. The representative from Westbay Community Action revealed that they had 180 applicants for only 18 slots in their program. “We’re going in the wrong direction,” said McNamara.
Another statistic that made McNamara stand up and take notice was the three factors that KIDS COUNT says puts an infant at high risk. According to KIDS COUNT, a child is more likely to grow up in poverty and suffer from abuse or neglect, and less likely to be ready for school, perform well in school and complete high school if they are born to a mother who is under 20 years old, unmarried and without a high school diploma. In Warwick, 1 percent of babies born in 2012 had all three factors (7 babies).
“Identifying these kids early and giving them the support they need is money well spent,” said McNamara.
He said it is also “critically important” to support young mothers.
“They can be overwhelmed,” said McNamara. “They need extra support, in some cases more flexible schedules.”
McNamara recalled working in a school that was incredibly supportive of parenting students, encouraging them to earn their high school degree.
“Working with these young mothers to graduate raises the chance that their children will graduate,” said McNamara.
Nadeau said the presentation overall appeared to be good news. “I think we compare very well, but there’s work to be done,” he said, specifically citing the graduation rate of 79 percent as “too low in my opinion.” Nadeau was hopeful that McNamara’s support would lead to more funding to improve schools in the city.
Stepping away from education, McNamara was also concerned to see the cost of living for Warwick; KIDS COUNT’s presentation said a family of three living at the poverty level in Warwick would need to contribute 83 percent of its household income to rent.
“If you’re a family that’s working a couple of part-time jobs and your renting, it’s tough,” said McNamara. “That reflects some of the issues we have here.”
According to KIDS COUNT, the Rhode Island Standard of Need in 2012 for a single parent living with two young children was $49,272 a year.
Lauterbach said he found many of the statistics to be interesting and was hopeful the conversation would lead to more improvements in the future.
“It’s important, these kinds of conversations about our children; they are our future,” said Lauterbach. “The leadership in this room is encouraging.”
For his work at The Kent Center, Lauterbach said he paid a great deal of attention to the data about trauma, abuse and neglect (only 7.5 per 1,000 Warwick children were victims of child abuse and neglect compared to 13.9 per 1,000 statewide), and the number of children with an incarcerated parent (63 parents of 110 children or seven per 1,000, compared to 11 per 1,000 statewide).
“Those type of events have long-term negative effects,” said Lauterbach.
Lara D’Antuono of the Boys & Girls Club said that the presentation confirmed what she sees on a daily basis.
“The misconception is that Warwick is an affluent community; that there isn’t need here,” she said. “But there are pockets.”
D’Antuono said the food insecurity and financial concerns trickling down to the children as two of the largest things seen at her organization.
Overall, the presentation compared children in Warwick to the statewide data and data from cities of similar size and economic standing. In terms of poverty, the Warwick rate of children living in poverty was 8.8 percent, less than half the state rate of 17.9 percent. However, because of the size of the population, the total number of Warwick children living in poverty is 1,400.
In terms of nutrition assistance, between 2011 and 2012, Warwick saw growth in children’s participation in WIC (up to 62 percent from 55), SNAP (up to 2,627 from 2,507) and the School Breakfast Program (up to 14 percent from 13 percent).
Warwick also ranked better than the state average in four areas of Infant Health: delayed prenatal care (12.5 percent compared to 15 percent for the state), low birth weight (7.5 percent in Warwick compared to 7.9 statewide), pre-term births (9.9 percent in Warwick, 11.1 statewide) and infant mortality (6 deaths per 1,000 births in Warwick while it is 6.5 per 1,000 statewide).
Warwick students also showed an improvement in math and reading skills from 2011. Between 2005 and 2012, the percentage of fourth graders proficient in reading increased from 71 percent to 78, and eighth grade reading proficiency increased from 59 percent to 80. In terms of math proficiency between 2005 and 2012, fourth grade proficiency increased from 52 percent to 57, and eighth grade increased from 18 percent to 28 (still well below the state rate of 34 percent).