Counting the kids...Because they are counting on us

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend Kentucky Youth Advocates (KYA) annual "Step Up for Kids" conference. This is an event where parents, community members and leaders, advocates and policy makers come together to hear and discuss the issues that are currently facing Kentucky's children and families, as well as to be educated about how to be an advocate (or for some of us, how to be a better advocate). KYA is a multi-issue, statewide child advocacy organization that I have worked in collaboration with when I was part of the PTA. One issue that we partnered on was the effort to increase the drop-out age from 16 to 18. Yes, Kentucky still permits students to legally drop out of school at the age of 16. Unfortunately this legislation has failed to pass, in no small part due to budget constraints (or perceived constraints) and a prevailing attitude that "if they don't want to be in school why keep them there."

At yesterday's event, each attendee was presented with the annual Kentucky Kids Count 2011 County Data Book. It is often the case in education (or any other system) to talk about the data as if everyone knows the data. This is a great resource to help advocates for an increase and more active role of families in education to better understand the barriers to that increased engagement. For example, Katie Carter of KYA, pointed out that it in Kentucky it costs $6500 a year for infant child care and $5800 a year for after school care and

  • 1 out of 3 children, age 0-6, live below the federal poverty line,
  • 1 out of 4 children, age 6-11 live below the federal poverty line,
  • 1/3 of a family's income pays for childcare. ONE THIRD. 
In Jefferson County (where I live) in a population of 171,807 children (0-17), 21% are living in poverty. In fact, out of 100,534 students who are enrolled in Jefferson County Public Schools, 10.2% are homeless. According to the school district, based on a student population of 100,229 students, 61.8% of our students are utilizing the free/reduced lunch program (Jefferson County Public Schools Free/Reduced Lunch Participation 2011-2012). 

If you are a family struggling to just supply the basics when your income is perhaps below the federal poverty level (In 2011, the gross yearly FPLs were $18,530, $22,350 and $26,170 for families sizes of three, four and five, respectively) to start, basics often means you are literally working to pay for that childcare, and not much else. 

I read every day another report, another news article or another blog post that speaks about how poverty can impact educational attainment. Recognizing that there are sometimes mitigating circumstances that impact the ability a parent has to be engaged is important in addressing what engagement should look like. We often presume that when a parent isn't physically present it means that they care little about the educational experiences their child is having, and that they don't support their child, the teachers, or the school. In today's harsh economic reality more families than ever before are applying and qualifying for free reduced lunch, or for the first time ever have approached a school and asked for holiday assistance. Since no child or family walks around with a scarlet letter on their chest proclaiming that they are the working poor, we need to stop judging and commenting about "those people" and realize that the person you are speaking with might just be one of "those people." So the way that a parent is supporting their child is by doing everything in their power to make sure there is power in the home, or that there is a home period. 

We need to be more creative in our solutions about what engagement looks like. It does begin with hello and it builds from there. And if the first try doesn't work...TRY AGAIN. Our kids only get one chance in education. Let's make it the best and not stop until it is. 

Our district PTAs and schools work hard to make sure that all children have a safe and blessed holiday season. Many of our schools support the Blessings in a Backpack program (which let's be honest should be called "basics in a backpack" because blessing implies that one is getting something extra when the truth is our children are getting bare necessities). But just filing a backpack or helping the angel tree is a band aid on larger issues that we alone cannot fix. But together as a team? We just might enact enough change to eliminate, or at least lessen, the need and use of these programs altogether. 

And this is why we count the kids because the kids are counting on us. They are counting on all the adults in their lives to do right by them. To make sure that child care is more affordable and accessible so that their parents can engage in their educational experiences in a different way. They are counting on us to make sure that the foods they are served for those breakfasts and lunches are healthy, nutritious, and delicious. They are counting on us to stop arguing like children about who knows more about the history of education and education reform, and start behaving like adults and do something with the knowledge we have that will provide them with the best educational opportunities regardless of their family's financial circumstance.

Poverty isn't destiny. But until we as a nation make education a national mission (as the President said in a recent speech on the economy) I fear that we are telling our children that they don't count...and that they certainly can't count on us. 

We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as courses, and they come back to us as effects - Melville

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