Commentary - July 22nd, 2014
11:38 am
Thu July 24, 2014

Kids Count – And They Need Our Help

It’s summer in Montana – that means so much to celebrate about living in beautiful Big Sky country:  our lakes and rivers, mountains and trails; glorious national parks, a festival a week to enjoy.  Montana is a great place to live.  So I feel almost guilty in dropping a wet-blanket fact:  Montana is a great place to live, depending on who you are.

If you’re a child living in poverty, Montana is not so great.  Just this week, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released its authoritative “Kids Count” data book, showing that Montana ranks last among all 50 states in terms of children’s health.  Our ranking also slid markedly in the last five years, in terms of our kids’ economic well-being and education. 

There were bright spots:  fewer teen births, less teen drug and alcohol abuse; more kids graduating from high school on time (thanks, Graduation Matters Montana); more young children enrolled in pre-school. 

But it’s clear we have a long way to go to make our great state a great state for everyone.

The good news is that there are legions of folks promoting efforts to do just that.  At United Way, we see firsthand – and support as generously as possible – the work of effective, outcome-focused efforts that strengthen kids and families by improving the educational, financial and health status of thousands of Montanans.  In Missoula, people and organizations come together regularly under various umbrellas to do the kind of hard work that can improve the odds for Montana kids and families.  Because we all do well when everyone does well.

Recently, about 30 business, local government and nonprofit leaders came together in Missoula to discuss ways to get kids reading at grade level by 3rd Grade.    Grade-level reading is a key predictor of high-school graduation and future success.  In Montana, according to Kids Count, 65% of fourth-grade students aren’t proficient in reading, a slight increase in the last seven years.  We’ve got to turn that around.  We need to get Montana kids learning to read until 3rd Grade, and then reading to learn for the rest of their lives. 

At our meeting, we learned three critical factors that forecast a child’s future success:  1) graduating from high school; 2) getting and keeping a job; and 3) delaying child-bearing till at least age 24 or 25.  Too many young people never get to 2 and 3 because they don’t even get to 1.  They don’t graduate from high school. 

We talk a lot in our state and country about the importance of STEM education – Science/Technology/Engineering and Math.  But if kids can’t read, they’re not going to take up engineering, or much else.

Here are three challenges to students’ reading success: 

First, readiness.  Too many kids begin school already far behind.  The achievement gap starts early:  disparities can be seen in babies as young as nine months.  We need to invest in high-quality early child care and education, not just because it makes sense for kids, but because an educated work force boosts our economy.  It’s never too early to start kids on a path to prosperity.

Second, attendance.  Too many kids miss too much school, whether their absences are excused or unexcused.  In Missoula, school officials tell us that the highest absentee rate is among kindergarteners – yet that’s the age group whose little brains are on fire as the architecture of the brain is built.

We need to turn that absenteeism tide and make sure that kids are coming to school; and also that they’re eating breakfast, moving around and getting ready to learn. 

Third, the summer slide.  Too many kids fall behind over the summer, meaning that their first weeks and even months back in school are devoted to relearning what they were taught the previous year.  Research spanning – get this – 100 YEARS – shows that students typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer than they do on the same tests at the beginning of summer.

All of these issues – kids not ready to learn, absenteeism, summer learning loss – are most acute among poor and low-income kids, but all kids benefit by learning to read at grade level.   Again, we all do well when everyone does well.

So, this summer, while you and your family are enjoying all the wonders Montana has to offer, do me a favor.  Think about how you might contribute to improving grade-level reading in Montana – United Ways in Billings, Bozeman and Missoula are taking the lead in working on this in our communities; we hope other places will follow. 

And when you’re out shopping for back-to-school supplies, think about the kids whose families can’t afford them.  In Missoula, we’re stuffing more than 1,000 backpacks with everything from crayons to scientific calculators for elementary, middle and high-school students, so that kids in need start school as well equipped as everyone else.  Scores of Montana communities have some sort of school-supply drive – give to it.  You’ll make things better and you’ll feel better.

For more information about Kids Count, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, or a school-supply drive near you, email info@missoulaunitedway.org.  I’m Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of United Way of Missoula County.  Thanks for listening.