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Report shows progress

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD The release last week of a status report on the city's children from the Cherish Every Child Initiative shows that, while there has been some progress in the conditions that would prepare children for entry into school, there is still much to do to improve the lives of many of the city's children.

The status report compiles data examining how ready are the city's youngest residents are for school; what are conditions are like in their family that could affect their education; whether or the city's public schools have the resources they need; and conditions in the city as a whole that ultimately have an impact on education.

Sally Fuller, the project director for Cherish Every Child, an Initiative of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, met with Reminder Publications last week along with Initiative Steering Committee Member Paul Robbins.

The Initiative began in 1999 as a means to answer to the question, "What would it take for an entire city to come together around improving the lives of young children?" In 2003, the first status report was issued that defined a number of indicators for the well-being of children. The 2006 report examines the readiness of the city's children to enter education.

Fuller said this report would be used by an implementation committee that is comprised by representatives of city's government, the healthcare industry, and schools.

Fuller explained that recent research has shown that to close "the achievement gap" between children, a greater emphasis must be placed on preparing pre-school children.

She admitted the "emphasis [on pre-schoolers] surprised people."

Pre-school is seen by some as a chance for children to play, but the academics is important as well as the social and emotional skills. Being able to understand to assemble and wait in a line, sitting in a circle listening to a story and knowing how to share, for example, are skills needed by children to be prepared for first grade, she said.

Fuller said that statistics have shown that if a child is not reading at a third grade level by third grade, he or she may never read at the educational level they need.

The current report includes national statistics that indicate children who attend pre-school at ages three and four are 40 percent less likely to need special education or be held back a grade. They are also 30 percent more likely to graduate from high school and more than twice as likely to go to college.

Robbins said there has been progress made in just aligning the issues.

"This is really ground floor stuff," he said.

The Initiative is more than just the identification of problems and statistics about those issues. A number of programs have started in the city to begin addressing some of these conditions.

One the early accomplishments of the Initiative has been getting all of the stakeholders together to work on collaborations, Fuller said. She noted that many of these organizations compete with one another for funding.

Fuller said one of those programs is "Quest," a scholarship program for pre-school teachers who do not have a college degree. With funding from the Davis Foundation, the Frank Stanley Beveridge Foundation and MassMutual, up to 50 women will be going to eight different colleges to earn degrees in early childhood education.

Another program is an 18-month pilot effort for home visits. Fuller said that a number of the organizations and agencies have home visit programs to help young parents, but now there will be a coordinated effort through Springfield Infant and Toddlers to bring a "welcome baby" basket to homes. The basket program will enable new parents to learn about the programs available to them and Fuller said that representatives from both Mercy Medical Center and Baystate Medical Centers say the in-home visits are important.

One goal of the Initiative has been "trying to connect the dots for people. There's plenty for everybody to do," Fuller said.

From the report

The following are conditions that the status report either classifies as "Making progress," "No progress," or "Losing ground."

Making progress

Prenatal care: The percentage of pregnant women who are receiving adequate prenatal care has increased by 2.7 percent between 2001 and 2004, but the city is still behind the state.

Injury and poisoning hospitalizations: The number has dropped by half in Springfield but is still higher than the state average.

Early intervention for social special, emotional or behavioral concerns: The percentage for the city's children to receive such intervention has increased by 2.6 percent between 2001 and 2004 and is above the statewide rate.

Children per licenses early education slot: The number of 0 to five-year-olds per early education slot has declined meaning that more children can be served and putting Springfield above the state average.

Children in single parent families: over a three-year period the percentage of children living in single-parent homes declined, but remains twice the state's average.

Per pupil spending on K-12 education: per pupil spending, after adjusting for inflation, increased by 4.1 percent from 2000-2001 to 2003-2004, but its nearly $800 less than the state average.

Infant mortality rate: the infant mortality rate has declined by 24 percent since 2000 and is currently better than the state average.

Adult basic education services: The number of people on the wait list for adult basic education services, relative to capacity is declining.

Violent crime: Violent crimes have declined over a three-year period, but are about four times the state rate.

Adults with a Bachelors degree: the percentage of adults for a four-year degree is steadily increasing but is still less than half of the of statewide percentage.

Adults with a high school or a GED: the percentage of adults with a high schools degree or a GED is steadily rising and is getting closer to the state's average.

Losing ground

Children with health care: The current percentage (2002 most current data) is 94.7 percent compared to 96.2 three years previous.

Child abuse and neglect: The number of investigations funding supporting evidence of child abuse per 1,000 children has increased by 20 percent in the last three years and is higher than the state average.

Very low birth weight births: The percentage has risen over a three-year period and is higher than the state average.

Child poverty: The percentage of children living below the poverty level has increased dramatically and is nearly four times the state average.

Median Income of Families with Children: The median income of families with children, after adjusting for inflation, has dropped over a three year period and is about $47,000 less than the median income of families with children in Massachusetts.

Proficiency on third grade reading exam in Springfield: the percentage of third graders testing as proficient on the MCAS reading exam fell from 44 percent in 2002 to 41 percent in 2005 and is 20 percentage points behind the state average.

Poverty rate: the rate of poverty is on the rise and is three times the state's average.

No progress

Lead poisoning: Local levels have remained at a consistent level but are three times greater than the state level.

Enrollment of three and four-year-olds in public and private schools as a percent of all three and four-years old: Over a three-year period, with the exception of a single year improvement, the percentage of children has remained roughly the same, though significantly less that the state average.

Cost of early education relative to income: the cost for full-time early education services, as a percentage of a family's income remains high but unchanged.

Births to teenage mothers: The percentage of births to teenage mothers has remained the same over a three-year period but is more than three times the state average.

Births to single mothers: The rate of births to single mothers is slightly up over a three-year period and is more than twice the state average.

Children living in foster homes: The percentage of children in foster care remains about the same, but is nearly three times the statewide average.

Student-teacher ratio in Springfield elementary schools: The ratio of students to teachers remains about the same.

Unemployment rate: the unemployment rate in the city has remained about the same over a three-year period, but is higher than the state's unemployment rate.

Alcohol and substance abuse hospitalizations: the rate has remained the same over a three-year period, nearly triple the state's average.