By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
After 10 years of ranking last in the nation in child welfare, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “2011 Kids Count Data Book” released last week, the Mississippi Kids Count team is determined to help change the bleak outlook for Mississippi’s children.
Mississippi ranked 50th in seven out of 10 key indicators the foundation looks at to determine the overall health and educational well being of children in the United States. It ranked in the bottom five for in two other categories.
The indicators look at the physical, environmental and educational progress of a child from birth through their teenage years. Data is collected annually on the percentage of low-birthweight babies, percentage of children living in poverty and teen birth rate, among other indicators.
The state did see some major improvements in a few categories, including a huge drop in the percentage of teens not in school and not high school graduates — a category in which Mississippi was ranked 29th. Mississippi showed some improvement in five categories, but it wasn’t enough to keep up with positive growth in the rest of the country, and the state is stuck in last place yet again.
With major issues like high rates of child poverty and struggling early childhood education, Linda Southward of Mississippi Kids Count said it is imperative that everyone work together to solve the problem.
“I think when policy makers, private sectors, communities and schools get together and embrace children in their community, that the possibilities are endless. There is no reason that Mississippi cannot move up in its ranking,” Southward said.
Mississippi Kids Count, located at the Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State University, is in charge of collecting the data for the state on the key indicators. The group publishes this data yearly and provide it to organizations all over the state. Each year, the organization also works find success stories in organizations and programs who are making a real difference in Mississippi.
Three of those former success stories have been in the national spotlight in just the last few days. Rev. Michael O. Minor, of Oak Hill Baptist in Hernando, was the subject of a New York Times piece earlier this week titled “Preaching a Healthy Diet in the Deep-Fried Delta” which highlighted his battle against obesity in his own congregation. Valerie Long of Catch Kids was interviewed on NPR’s “Tell Me More” about her organizations mission to make health care more accessible to Mississippi children living in poverty. Yet another story was recently featured in People Magazine.
“It’s just amazing how the good news of a success story works. It just goes all around Mississippi and can even go around the nation,” Southward said. “I’m just so blessed in the three years I’ve been working here to find out about all the good things happening in Mississippi. Sometimes we just hear the bad news and we don’t realize what’s going on in our own backyard.”
For 2012, Mississippi Kids Count will honor four organizations who impact safety in the lives of children around the state. The organizations — the Family Resource Center of Northeast Mississippi, the Fire Academy for Kids, T.A.P. (Talk About the Problem), and Mississippi Gulf Coast Child Safety Coalition — will all be recognized for their work in child abuse and neglect prevention, environmental safety, school safety or transportation safety at Mississippi Kids Count’s summit in Jackson next year. The summit brings together organizations, leaders and policy makers from all over the state with the goal of learning from each other.
“They also present workshops during the summit. It’s a very informal type of workshop where they winners tell everybody what they do, how they do it, then there is a question and answer session. People in north Mississippi can learn from people in south Mississippi and vice versa, and they can take it back to their communities and say ‘We can do this.’ And many of our success story winners are doing remarkable things on very little money, which is an added bonus,” Anne Buffington of Mississippi Kids Count said.
The hope is that these success stories will help inspire other organizations and communities to make a difference too. It is with the help of these organizations, Southward said, that Mississippi can move forward.
“The children in Mississippi are just as bright and just as deserving for wonderful things to happen for them and on their behalf as all other children in this country. We have a great opportunity to continue and improve the strives that have been made in areas like early care and education,” Southward said. “These are not easy questions to answer. As we’ve said here at the Social Science Research Center for a number of years, the problems that face our families, children and communities today are so incredibly complex that we must have multiple disciplines involved so that we can be the most successful.”
To find more information about Mississippi Kids Count, their data and success stories, visit www.ssrc.msstate.edu/mskidscount .