Right now, 30 percent of Ashe County children are living in poverty, said Julie Landry with the Ashe County Partnership for Children.
With this in mind, what is the community doing to develop their well-being?
On Tuesday, educators, physicians, and child advocacy groups came together at the first State of the Child conference presented by the Ashe B5 Council and Ashe County Partnership for Children to create an action plan for the success of local children.
Landry said this conference was about “getting on a bandwagon” for Ashe County’s children by focusing on protecting children, making sure they’re healthy, getting them the education they need and combating poverty.
Smart Start National Technical Assistance Coach and former Executive Director of Smart Start in Forsyth County, Dean Clifford, gave the morning’s keynote address. Clifford said that Smart Start combines both public and private elements of the community to provide a family support program, ensuring that children maintain their enthusiasm for learning. Clifford said North Carolina has set an example for other states in its comprehensive approach to early childhood care and education.
Clifford put into perspective where the community is in education, and where it is headed. “We are in a period of national angst,” Clifford said.
In an uncertain political climate, the polarization of parties has led to a paralysis, but the key is for communities to focus on common values such as equality, education, well-functioning families, and civic engagement, said Clifford.
Referencing business leaders and economists, Clifford said that early childhood education is the best kind of economic development because critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills necessary for building good employees are best learned as children.
Clifford reminded particpants that children in the U.S. are competing in a global environment, and are being outperformed. “Our national security depends on the integrity of our education system,” said Clifford, and with the U.S. scoring 24th in overall education out of developed countries, we need to create a “culture of education” that recognizes the excellence of teachers and gives them the respect they deserve.
The conference’s first panel discussion on current issues regarding child poverty, health and protection consisted of Jennifer Davis of Child Care Resources and Referral, attorney Tracie Jordan of the Guardian ad Litem office, Bethany Marshall of First in Families, Teressa Goss of the Ashe Dept. of Social Services, and pediatrician Dr. Ila Baugham of the Children’s Development Service Agency.
The panel was asked how today’s children are doing compared to those 20 years ago, and Baugham said that every year the North Carolina Institute of Medicine issues a child health report. The most recent report showed more children are insured, and immunization rates are at 97 percent, but breastfeeding rates are “abysmal.
The report also showed the state scored “A’s” in early intervention for developmental problems and environmental health, but scored poorly in substance abuse in grades 9-12 because of a 20.5 percent increase in prescription drug abuse by youth.
Addressing the question of the most pressing issues for children and families, Marshall said much of what First in Families does is help needy families pay for basic utilities and medical supplies not covered by insurance.
For example, “if a power bill is high because a family has a child on life support,” Marshall said. She said that their second most used resource is a program providing iPads as communication tools for developmentally disabled children.
Goss said there is a shortage of case managers for children who are developmentally disabled. Though funding has been cut to many programs, the “needs are still there and parents are struggling.”
Baugham followed by saying the segment of uninsured children and transportation to health care facilities were other issues.
The conference’s second panel focused on issues in education and consisted of representatives from Appalachian State University, Dr. Denise Brewer and Dr. Cindy McGaha, and representatives from Ashe County Schools, Jessica Roland, Terry Richardson and Kim Barnes.
“It is incredibly important that we advocate for education…becoming aware of the political climate and legislation and being spokespeople to local and state politicians,”said McGaha.
The use of technology with young children was discussed. Barnes said that technology “allows [children] greater access to a world they would never know otherwise…and encourages higher thinking and problem solving.” While acknowledging the benefits of technology, McGaha and Brewer stressed the importance of developmentally appropriate uses of technology.
McGaha said that our society is “under the gun in terms of time management,” and that “families need more time to be families together.”
Similarly, Roland said, “families need to know that they are important from day one. Children will be very successful when school and family are meeting on the same page.”
Comparing today’s child with one from 20 years ago, Richardson said as early childhood education has become more prevalent, educators are “meeting all areas of need and there are more opportunities for early childhood education.”
Following the panel discussions, Jennifer Sims and Paula Joines demonstrated uses of iPads as augmentative communication tools for nonverbal children including those with Autism or Apraxia.
Later, Kay Phillip and Julie Landry led participants in identifying gaps in services. Landry said, “B5 is trying to work toward a collaborative effort,” bringing different community resources together for children.
In closing, Baugham recounted a hopeful anecdote about a teenage mother she encountered and ended by reading the poem “A Prayer for Children” by Marian Wright Edelman.