JACKSON, Miss. — Larry Green is superintendent of a rural school district that stretches alongside the Mississippi River, and he knows how challenging life can be for children from poor families.
Many of the youngsters in Western Line School District start kindergarten or first grade with limited vocabularies, he said, and many come from homes where there are no guarantees of regular, nutritious meals.
“These kids, when they get to school, they’re already at a disadvantage,” Green said Monday.
It comes as no surprise to him or to some other Mississippi educators and policy makers that a new national survey ranks the perennially poor state as worst in the nation for children’s well being based on health and poverty statistics.
The annual Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, released Tuesday, uses information from 2007 and 2008.
The report says Mississippi ranked worst nationally in seven of 10 categories.
It says the state had the highest percentage of low-birthweight babies; the highest rates of infant mortality, child deaths and births to teenagers; the highest percentage of children in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment; the highest percentage of children in poverty and the highest percentage of children in single-parent families.
“I keep hoping and praying the state’s going to do better,” said Democratic state Rep. Alyce Clarke of Jackson.
Clarke once worked as a nutritionist for a health center that helps the poor. She has tried to reduce teen pregnancy by introducing several bills over the past 25 years to allow Mississippi’s public schools to teach “age-appropriate” sex education.
Conservatives have killed the bills, saying that parents not schools should decide how much children learn about human reproduction.
A common refrain in the Mississippi Legislature is that with the weak economy and the tight state budget, it’s impossible to expand programs for health and education. Some lawmakers say government shouldn’t try to solve every problem, or that government itself makes problems worse by creating dependency.
The Kids Count report shows 30 percent of Mississippi children were living in poverty in 2008, compared to 18 percent nationally. It also shows 45 percent of Mississippi children were living in single-parent families in 2008, compared to 32 percent nationally.
“Those two factors, coupled together, really set the stage for some difficult trajectory for young children and their families,” said Dr. Linda H. Southward, a Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center professor who led the effort to gather information for Kids Count in Mississippi.
Western Line is one of the few school districts in Mississippi to offer publicly funded academic programs for 4-year-olds. Green said the district started the optional full-day classes during the 2009-10 school year, and 70 children enrolled. He said that was about 60 to 65 percent of the eligible youngsters.
“It’s amazing to see what those little minds, at 4 years old, can absorb,” he said.
Green said Western Line has been using federal stimulus money to fund the program. In a district where about 87 percent of children qualify for free lunch, he said he’ll find a way to keep paying for pre-kindergarten.
“I could say I don’t have any money, either,” Green said. “But I’m finding money.”