SEBRING — Higher education is 18 years away from preschool, but even from that distance, Kimberly Batty-Herbert knows that a successful college career starts as a toddler.
The U.S. Census says 76 percent of Highlands County children don’t attend preschool, and the dean of Arts and Sciences at South Florida Community College sees the results.
“They don’t have the skill sets of students who have taken rigorous classes,” Batty-Herbert said. “They don’t know now to critically read an article; they don’t know how to look for the organizational patterns.”
In its 2013 Kid Counts report, the Annie E. Casey Foundation designated 16 Key Indicators of Child Well Being. Three other Education Domain indicators are Fourth Graders Not Proficient in Reading, Eighth Graders Not Proficient in Math, and High School Students Not Graduating On Time.
One leads to the other, Batty-Herbert said. Non-preschool students who lack good role models during formative years, or whose parents didn’t participate in their children’s education, may never catch up with other students.
“It’s critical to get them enrolled in preschool,” Batty-Herbert said.
The brainwork involved in hearing the sound of the letter A, or struggling with two plus two equals four, prepares a lifetime of learning. There are also games, music, storytime, dancing, art — even building blocks teach problem solving and physics, Josie Meade, a teacher at the Creative Kids preschool in Manhattan Beach, Calif., told parents.com.
As they develop good education habits, kids are praised and develop positive self-esteem. “They feel good about themselves and know how to feel proud.”
“Reading is the foundation of education,” Batty-Herbert said. “Reading and listening skills, they are essential to success.”
Four of the 16 indicators are in the Economic Well Being domain: Children In Poverty, Children Whose Parents Lack Secure Employment, Children In Families With High Housing Costs, and Teens Not In School And Not Working.
“There are areas throughout Highlands County that are pockets of poverty,” said Jack Richie, who chairs CareerSource’s executive committee.
“But it affects all regions, and it hurts everybody. It’s absolutely incredible.”
Thousands of Highlands County citizens lost their jobs during the Great Recession, which started in 2008. Unemployment tripled.
Richie, who is also a county commissioner, recalls the Great Depression’s aftermath. “I’m from Flint, Mich. I haven’t lived there in years, I worked for G.M. in the Flint area after I left the Air Force, but the aftereffects of the Depression are still prevalent in Flint. It affects people for a generation. The children are dramatically affected. When I went to school, I can remember taking off my shoelaces and giving them to someone who didn’t have shoe strings.”
Two key indicators are Children In Poverty, and Children Living In High Poverty Areas. According to the U.S. Census, 19 percent of Highlands County residents live below the poverty line, versus 23 percent of Americans.
Does poverty affect self-esteem?
“Absolutely, it does,” Richie said. “They have a trauma because of it, because they weren’t up with the rest of the kids. There are terrible things that happen in our society. Today, when you look at it, I think a lot of society’s problems are based on that anger, because they’re looked down on in society. Self-esteem is a huge, huge thing when you look at children, and they are around other kids and they can’t do things other kids do.
“It carries on,” Richie said. “You can see the effect of it going from one generation to another generation. It all follows a chain, and it’s very troubling.”
All kids have a physical before starting school, but some never see a doctor after that.
“Either they’re healthy, or they just don’t go,” said Barbara Moore.
The first three of the four Health Domains will often bring children before the school nurse: Low Birthweight Babies, Children Without Health Insurance, Teens Who Abuse Alcohol. The final category is Child and Teen Deaths per 100,000.
“Probably a lot of children who are low birth weight babies will have developmental or physical disabilities,” said Moore, who is a school nurse. “Teen alcohol abuse will get you in front a school nurse, and if that’s the case, there are probably other things going on. We assist the schools with screenings. We see a lot of kids in our health rooms, and if we find non-negative results, the school deals with it after that.”
From working with Highland County Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition, Moore said, “We know that alcohol is the most abused drug in Highlands County. There are other ones, but for teenagers, alcohol is the main one.”
Six more factors affect school performance: Children In Poverty, Children Whose Parents Lack Secure Employment, Children From Single Parent Families, Children Who Are Not In School And Are Not Working, Children Whose Parents Lack A High School Diploma, and Teens Who Are Having Babies. The census lists another category for Highlands County: almost 25 percent of girls who gave birth have another child before they turn 20.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation did report good news.
“All our Education factors from preschool to high school have improved over the years, the Kids Care report said. “Child health has continued to improve, with gains in children’s health insurance coverage and reductions in child and teen mortality and teen substance abuse. The percentage of low-birth weight babies improved slightly.”
Teen birth rates are at a record low, Pew Research reported on April 21. The all-time peak for teen births was 96.3 per 1,000 in 1957 – the baby boom years. But those were different times; back then, 85 percent of teen mothers were married.
Today’s statistics have flipped: 89 percent of births are to unmarried women. Even so, the teen birth rate is only 29.4.
The birthrate for U.S. born women decreased 6 percent from 2007 to 2010, foreign-born women, 14 percent; however, the birth rate for Mexican women fell 23 percent.
“What else is contributing to the decline in teen birth rates: Less sex, more contraception and more information,” Pew said. The report also noted that birthrate figures account only for live birth, not miscarriages, stillbirths or abortions.
“We see kids that we know are in poverty, and we know there are family and social issues,” Moore said. “We don’t always know what they are, but they are affected by their economic status. There are kids that aren’t insured but could be, and for that reason they don’t go to the doctor. We try to work with the parents and try to get them to the doctor.
“We see kids from broken homes, and we know the parent is trying to work and raise a family, but it’s difficult. We see kids that come to school sick, and it’s because the parent has to go to work,” Moore said. Kids who aren’t in school are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs.
“All of this is interrelated. It’s also related to school attendance, and it’s usually involved in what’s going on with the child,” Moore said.
Preschools, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, colleges, teachers, school resource deputies, the health department, and agencies like the Early Learning Coalition, all partner like a village to raise Highlands Children.
“We all have to work together,” Moore said. “It’s a big circle.”
“It’s like a fishing net,” Batty-Herbert said. “If a knot comes undone, they lose fish. We lose children.”