By Linda Kor
Along with ranking 14th in the nation for the highest number of families uncertain of where their next meal is coming from, a new study unveiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that Arizona has slipped from 46th place to 47th among states in 2011 as far as the well being of its children on a variety of measures, including poverty, education, health, and family and community factors. The report ranked Arizona ahead of only Nevada, Mississippi and New Mexico for 2011.
The study, which has been conducted since 1990, notes that the outcome is an indicator that Arizona continues to struggle to overcome the recession.
It cites the state’s relatively high rate of poverty and the number of children who are not in preschool as two main factors weighing against the state. In 2011, 23 percent of children lived in poverty in the U.S., which is defined as income below $22,811 for a family of four, an increase of one percent since 2010.
In Arizona, 27 percent of children lived in poverty in 2011, moving the state from 37th place to 42nd place overall.
“The Kids Count figures are distressing. But, the bigger issue here is kindergarten readiness, and making sure that all children in our community have access to the rich early childhood experiences that help them arrive at school prepared to be successful, regardless of where those experiences occur,” stated Kate Dobler-Allen, regional director for Navajo and Apache counties’ First Things First, a statewide early childhood system that supports the development, health and early education of all Arizona’s children from birth through age 5.
“One way is through quality child care and preschool. In that arena, there are a number of challenges our community faces. The first is the lack of available programs in many communities. The recession forced many programs to close, and the programs that are left are mostly in the more urban areas, leaving families in rural areas with few options,” explained Dobler-Allen, who added that budget cuts brought on by the recession forced many school districts to decrease or eliminate their preschool programs.
She went on to say that the second challenge is the cost. “Child care and preschool can sometimes cost as much as tuition at a state university, which is out of reach for many families. Budget cuts at the state level have limited the number of child care subsidies available to working families. The regional council spends 12 to 14 percent of its funding every year in scholarships to help more kids access early learning,” she noted.
According to Dobler-Allen, many families also choose to keep their children at home with them until it’s time to enter kindergarten, a choice she believes must be respected. “Parents are their child’s first and best teacher. So, if we want to make an impact on school readiness, we also need to focus on partnering with parents to build their awareness of the importance of those early interactions with young kids and build their confidence in their role as their child’s first teacher,” she said.
To ensure that children in the communities of this region come to school prepared to be successful is a responsibility Dobler-Allen says we all share. “No one organization or strategy can do it all. We must build partnerships between families, public programs and private organizations to maximize available resources, and give families early learning options that work best for them,” she explained.
With parents and communities taking measures to ensure that the youth in Arizona receive every educational opportunity available to them, the likelihood of Arizona rising in the ranks grows with its children.
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By Linda Kor