By many measures, children in Mississippi are worse off than kids in most other states, but Mississippi shows some bright spots. The Annie E. Casey Foundation's annual "Kids Count" report ranks Mississippi 50th overall for its children's educational, economic and physical well-being. At today's Mississippi Kids Count annual summit, advocates and educators shared challenges and success stories in the effort to improve the state's standing.
"(The Casey report) gives us a clear picture of where we are the state, what our challenges are, what our successes have been," said Oleta Fitzgerald, director of the Children's Defense Fund's Southern Regional Office.
Since 2000, Mississippi rankings have declined on six of the 10 key indicators that the Casey Foundation tracks. The state's percent of low-birth weight babies increased from 10.7 percent to 12.3 percent in 2007, the latest year for which data was available. The teen birth rate also increased slightly during that period, from 70.1 to 72 per 1,000.
From 2000 to 2009, the state saw slight increases in the percentage of teens not in school or working, and the percentage of children living in families without a full-time employed parent.
In contrast to Mississippi, most key indicators of child well-being improved nationally from 2000 to 2008. The infant-mortality rate, child and teen death rates, teen birth rate and percentage of teens not in school or high-school graduates all declined nationwide.
Those increases are somewhat consistent with national trends, however, which show slight increases in the percent of low-birth weight babies, children in poverty and the children in single-parent families.
In Mississippi, the number of children in poverty dramatically increased from 2000 to 2009--from 26.4 percent to 31 percent--and the percent of children in single-parent families--from 42.7 percent to 48 percent.
"Unfortunately, the report still reflects that Mississippi has a long way to go. In this current budget environment, we're awfully afraid of slipping backwards in some areas," Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald's office directs Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids, a $5 million initiative funded by the Kellogg Foundation that the Kids Count report dubbed a "success story." SPARK coordinates the efforts of the various organizations and institutions that serve young children in Mississippi. In five school districts around the state, SPARK brings schools, parents and business leaders together with early childhood entities like Head Start and day-care centers. The initiative also tries to bridge the gaps between school, home and child care by assigning an individual advocate to parents and children, acting as a tutor and a guide for navigating the school system.
Preliminary results from the program are promising, with students who participate in SPARK outperforming peers from similar situations on the state's standardized tests for third-graders.
The Casey report also recognized a Jackson-based dropout prevention as a "success story." Started in 2008, the Jackson's Promise Coalition is a program offered by the United Way of the Capital Area. It takes a collaborative approach to solving the tri-county area's dropout problem, enlisting community organizations to provide services in five areas: positive relationships with adults; safe places for students; physical and mental health; effective education; and opportunities to serve the community.
Carol Burger, president of the United Way of the Capital Area, said that she looks forward to seeing this year's test results from the program's first cohort to receive extra help on the state's English II exam, a prerequisite for graduation.
"Out of those that we're working with, if we can get half of them to pass and graduate, I think that's an accomplishment," Burger said. "We know we're not going to get them all, but it'll be more than if we hadn't gotten involved."
This is the governor's claim track record anyway you slice it. He has been there for most of it. Not a good legacy at all.