Polk better than state in some areas on national child well-being report

Published 5:44 pm Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Annie E. Casey Foundation released on July 25 its annual Kids Count Data Book, which details statistics on the overall well-being of children across the country and breaks that data down by state and county.
Overall North Carolina ranked 34th out of 50 states for child well-being, while Polk County fared better than the state on several indicators.
The report ranks states from 1-50 based on a slew of factors, such as percentage of low birth-weight infants, children experiencing homelessness, uninsured youth, graduation rates and amount spent per pupil in schools.
A release from the foundation said this year’s statistics showed both progress and setbacks for the nation’s youth. The report said while children have shown improvements in academic achievement and health in most states, their economic well-being has continued to decline.
Polk County Schools Superintendent Bill Miller said he believes the area’s youth have a brighter future because of not only the financial investment but also the personal investment made by the community.
“There’s no denying that Polk County students get a tremendous amount of support from the community,” he said. “You can just go on and on and on about the impact [of that support] over a student’s educational and personal experience – it’s really almost hard to describe.”
Data compiled by the foundation said North Carolina is currently home to 2,282,018 young people under the age of 18. Polk County, meanwhile, had 3,808 residents under the age of 18.
The Kids Count report breaks each county down to look at individual indicators.
Some of the more positive indicators for Polk County included a graduation rate of 87.2 percent, compared to a graduation rate of 78.8 percent for N.C. high school students overall in 2011.
Test scores showed a proficiency in math for 91.2 percent of the county’s third graders, compared to 73.2 percent for third graders statewide, according to the report.
On an eighth-grade level, 84.6 percent scored high enough to be considered proficient in math in Polk County, while only 68.2 percent did statewide.
Polk County saw some similarities to the national trend in relation to higher academic achievement, despite declining family economics.
Performance rates have increased in the areas mentioned above, yet the number of children in poverty also increased in Polk County from 885 in 2009 to 950 in 2010.
Carol Newton, director of Thermal Belt Outreach Ministry in Columbus, said children having access to the basic necessities of life is beyond critical.
“Look at the Depression and what happened to children who didn’t have enough food. We see it in our parents; they wanted us to clean our plate because we were lucky to have it. That type of experience builds the foundation for your education, your vitality and your outlook in life. It’s a huge influence,” Thomas said. “The psychological impact is very important.”
Annie E. Casey Foundation numbers indicated that 56.6 percent of students participated in the free or reduced lunch program in Polk County in 2010-2011; that percentage was 53.9 statewide. The county average decreased from 2009-2010, when 58.7 percent of students received the lunch assistance, but was back to 58.6 at the end of this previous school year, according to Polk County Schools’ records.
Outreach’s Wendy Thomas said the ministry just recently sent out a postcard plea with the tagline, “Hunger Hurts.” She said contributors immediately began sending in food to help stock the pantry shelves.
“We got an immediate flood of responses from the community – it was pretty incredible,” Thomas said. “There is still a need – I don’t want people to think it was taken care of, but there was a tremendous response.”
Thomas said just recently, in fact, a school-aged child came through Outreach on a field trip and touchingly asked the question, “Can my mommy come here?”
Numbers from Feeding America show that 25.9 percent or 1,010 children in Polk County faced food insecurity last year.
Other indicators affect a child’s well-being too. According to the Kids Count report, 17 children in Polk County Schools experienced a situation in which they were considered homeless at some point in the year. A total of 25,286 kids were in similar situations statewide.
When it comes to insurance, about 9.8 percent of the county’s population under the age of 18 were uninsured, the report showed. Meanwhile, 252,000 children under 18 or 10.3 percent of the youth population of North Carolina were uninsured in 2010.
Counterbalancing the economic decline for families in Polk County, Miller said, has been the community stepping in.
“Anyone who has ever had the opportunity to go to awards night at Polk County High School and hear the number of scholarships given away by this community cannot walk away from there without saying, ‘Wow,’” Miller said.
He also pointed out funding provided to teachers for classroom supplies through mini grants from the Polk County Community Foundation, numbers of volunteers who read to kids in local schools and what he called an “impressive number” of contributors to programs such as the high school’s farm.
“I think an enormous thing here is not just the pure financial piece – it’s people walking around talking to kids about how they are doing in school. I think our community helps our students and young people to have the expectation that they are going to go on and further their education in some fashion and that really, really makes a big impact,” Miller said.
The overall per-pupil expenditure in North Carolina was $7,966, while $9,650 was spent per pupil in Polk County during the 2010-2011 school year through combined federal, state and local funds.
The largest difference seemed to be accounted for in the average amount of local funds spent per child. Statewide that average was $1,774, but in Polk County local funds accounted for $2,358 per student.
Newton said it’s important for people to understand that an investment to ensure a child has school supplies, shoes or enough food to eat is an investment in the county’s future growth as well.
“If children don’t have the proper nutrition or tools to really use what they are given at school, that will really affect our work force and the economic vitality in our county,” she said. “It will matter to all of us down the road.”
The previous statistics are highlights of the measures considered in the Kids Count report of the Annie E. Casey Foundation to assess child well-being in the state and Polk County. For further data, visit datacenter.kidscount.org.

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