More than 500 people, policy makers and community leaders gathered at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick Monday morning for the release of the 21st annual KIDS COUNT Factbook.
Examining over 71 indicators of children’s well being, the fact book provides a statistical profile for the condition of Rhode Island’s population of children.
The fact book is a foundation from which individuals can draft and implement policies to better help the children of the state.
This year’s book found that Rhode Island is continuing to make progress in children’s well being, but the speakers at Monday’s event reminded that there is still a long way to go and encouraged everyone to dedicate themselves to making a conscious and statewide effort to improving the children’s lives.
Elizabeth Burke Bryant, the executive director for Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, said, “While we have made progress for Rhode Island’s children, we must accelerate our efforts and work together to ensure that all of Rhode Island’s children have the opportunity to succeed.”
The fact book had two new indicators this year: paid family leave and children born to mothers who took opioids or drank alcohol during the pregnancy.
They found that out of the 3,870 approved claims for paid family leave in 2014, 74 percent were to bond with a new child, whether a newborn or an adopted/fostered child.
For newborns with opioids and alcohol, the fact book provided data on Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) and found the diagnosis is on the rise not only here in Rhode Island, but also nationwide.
In 2013, 76 infants were diagnosed with NAS at birth. Ninety percent of these births between 2009 and 2013 were with a white mother and 32 percent of those mothers lived in Providence, Central Falls, Pawtucket, or Woonsocket.
A total of 21 percent of children are currently living in poverty.
Victor Capellan, board chairperson of KIDS COUNT, said, “We should advocate for all of our children, but for the 21 percent who are waiting for us to be their champion we need to step up. We are the voice for that 21 percent.”
For the majority of speakers at Monday’s event, the focus was on either the economy or education, as they pertain to children.
The fact book said that Rhode Island is seeing more children enrolled in both pre-K and full-day kindergarten.
For the 2014-2015 school year, 81 percent of kindergartners were in a full-day program.
Similarly, graduation rates are continuing to improve. The class of 2014 had an 81 percent graduation rate,
Keynote speaker Christina Paxson, president of Brown University, spoke about the connections between children’s early development and “economic well being.”
She said, “The economic returns on an investment in human capital, early childhood interventions, is so great.”
She explained that poverty, and many of the other issues addressed in the fact book are often an intergenerational issue, in that those growing up in poverty are more likely to live in poverty themselves as adults.
She said to break the cycle, the state needs to commit to providing for these children at an early age.
“We have to start at the beginning. Early interventions can help stop many of these issues from happening all together,” she said.
Senator Jack Reed, who was formally presented a fact book, said, “We need to invest in our children not only because it is the smart thing to do, but it is the right thing to do.”
Congressman James Langevin and Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello were also presented fact books.
“This plays an important role in making sure we are serving our youngest population,” Langevin said. “We want to see Rhode Island be a model for the country.”
Youth speaker Xilian Sansoucy, a sophomore at Classical High School and a representative of Young Voices Rhode Island, received a standing ovation for her speech on children’s well-being while in their place of education.
“We need to ensure that every student can thrive in their learning environment. We all have the same motivation and passion to see our students successful, no matter the obstacles they may face,” she said.
She called for a more student-centered curriculum. She said this would help ensure that all types of students of different abilities and strengths could be successful.
She also addressed the need to shift schools’ outdated “punitive disciplinary system” to one that rather focuses on “restorative justice.”
She said students are reprimanded in a way that does not address the true problems, but rather simply denies a student their right to an education through detentions, suspensions and expulsions.
The fact book stated that school suspensions are declining, the 2013-2014 school year having 30,790 disciplinary actions versus the 2012-2013 school year, which had 32,296; however, there is still a disparity in disciplinary actions.
Minority students made up 39 percent of the student population, but received 57 percent of all disciplinary actions in the 2013-2014 school year.
“If we are expected to act as adults, we need to be treated as adult,” Sansoucy said. “We are not the leaders of tomorrow, we are the leaders of today.”
Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo, who also received a standing ovation, agreed with Sansoucy.
Gallo said, “We need to speak out for equity and justice for all so that every child has a future that matters.”
Without the fact book, Gallo said the state would be hard-pressed in making progress for the state’s children.
“We have the most influential people in Rhode Island in this room, we can do anything,” Gallo said.
Governor Gina Raimondo, upon being presented a fact book, said, “I am aware that a lot of responsibility comes with this fact book. I want you to know I am committed to improving these numbers.”
In her comments, Raimondo followed with the trend of education.
She committed herself to seeing full-day kindergarten universal throughout the state, helping college-bound students with scholarships, and empowering high school students to take college courses at no cost through dual enrollment programs.
She was also dedicated to renovating and improving some of Rhode Island’s worst schools.
Raimondo said that she spoke to one student who mentioned how “crumbling ceilings and peeling paint” made them feel like they weren’t important and their education wasn’t either.
“As a mother, I lived it. I saw my kids flourish and I want to see every kid have those same opportunities,” Raimondo said.
“I am committed, as governor, to be a state where all our children are healthy, thriving and educated. Let’s fund our kids.”
For more information on KIDS COUNT, visit their website at www.rikidscount.org.