Kids Count celebrates 25 years, eyes challenges

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Around 600 people filled the Grand Ballroom of the Crowne Plaza in Warwick on Monday morning to show their support for the 25th Anniversary of Kids Count, a statewide children's policy organization that works to improve the health, economic well-being, safety, education and development of Rhode Island's 206,972 children.

According to keynote speaker Mark Shriver, Senior Vice President of U.S. Programs & Advocacy at Save the Children, 90 percent of brain growth in kids happens in the first five years of life, "but as a country we don't invest in many cases until they enter kindergarten," he said, calling it a huge missed opportunity.

Governor Gina Raimondo re-emphasized her mission to change that, at least in Rhode Island, which she touted as the nation's leader in Pre-K services and rallied support for her initiative to provide comprehensive, universal Pre-K to all Rhode Island children.

"I know my own children flourished because of high quality Pre-K – we could afford that, we were lucky," she said. "Every single child deserves high quality Pre-K, regardless of whether or not their parents are able to afford it."

Raimondo called investing in Pre-K as a smart move that would benefit the economy for years to come, and called on House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin Abney to approve the money allocated in her budget spending bill to provide the service to all Rhode Islanders.

"The money's there, let's get it done," Raimondo said, generating applause.

Proponents of early childhood education say that ensuring access to high quality Pre-K is a key method of closing opportunity gaps that exist especially for students of color and of lower income.

"We know what works to ensure that all children have the chance to reach their full potential and it is imperative that we work to close unacceptable gaps for children of color and low-income children so that every child has an equal opportunity to succeed," said Shriver in a release.

Kids Count released copies of their 2019 Factbook, a nearly 200-page document that chronicles 71 different indicators of child well-being, including five main categories – family and community; economic well-being; health; safety; and education. The event highlighted some successes they find encouraging.

"This year, we are seeing many positive trends for our state’s children," said Elizabeth Burke Bryant, Executive Director of Rhode Island Kids Count, in a release. "We are pleased to see a continuing decline in child poverty and a continuing increase in the percentage of children with health insurance. We also are seeing increases in enrollment in our Early Intervention program and in evidence-based family home visiting programs, two programs that support the development of our youngest children. At the other end of the age spectrum, we are also seeing increases in college enrollment right after graduation."

"Unfortunately," she continues in the release, "we are also seeing some troubling trends, including an increase in school suspensions and high rates of e-cigarette use among our youth."

"We are also closely watching the trends of children involved in the child welfare system," she continues. "Overall increases in the caseload of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families, increases in maltreatment reports, and increases in cases of child abuse and neglect are cause for concern, and we need to be sure there are resources in place to provide the full range of responses and services needed. A positive finding is an increase in the number of children being cared for in foster families rather than in congregate care."

The 2019 Factbook revealed some interesting statistics, such as between 2013 and 2017, 18.9 percent of Rhode Island's children lived in poverty, equating to 39,229 children living in families that resided under the federal poverty line. Approximately 64 percent of those living in poverty were concentrated in just four cities – Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket. 

The breakdown of children demographics in Rhode Island, which accounted for approximately 20 percent of the total population in 2017, was 72 percent white, 9 percent black, 3 percent Asian, 1 percent American Indian or Alaskan Native, 8 percent other races and 7 percent of two or more races. Overall, the total number of children under the age of 18 has decreased by nearly 24,000 (about 10 percent) from 2000 to 2010.

Kids Count advocates touted their work in advocating for policies that have led to a reduction in lead poisoning cases among children and the increase in the percentage of children who are covered by insurance, in addition to ongoing work in Pre-K and after-school programs. However, as their Factbook shows, racial disparity still exists to a troubling degree.

Between 2013 and 2017, only 14 percent of white children resided in poverty, opposed to 38 percent of Hispanic children, 29 percent of black children and 64 percent of Native American children. The Factbook reports that the achievement gap between white and Latino students in Rhode Island is "among the largest in the U.S."

"Despite these successes, we have much more work to do," writes Bryant. "Wide gaps continue to exist between children of color and white children in nearly every Factbook indicator, and these gaps will hold Rhode Island back in terms of our educational and workforce goals and future prosperity."

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