Study: Rowan has a lot of catching up to do

Published 12:10 am Saturday, June 25, 2016

By Rebecca Rider

SALISBURY — Rowan County students have made great strides in education and health despite experiencing the worst financial insecurity in two generations, the 2016 Kid’s Count Data Book revealed.

The report, a yearly look at how children fare in health, finances and education on a national scale, was released Thursday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Collected data spans three years – from 2013 to 2015 – and reveals that, since the 2015 report, North Carolina has moved up the ranks in overall child wellbeing. The state ranks 34th nationally, up one spot from last year. However, N.C. Child, a child advocacy organization, said that the gain is mostly due to the fall of other states.

North Carolina shines best in education – falling at 28 out of 50 – but that rank has remained unchanged since the 2015 report. And in all areas, North Carolina falls below average.

Despite that, education has improved in the state, more teens are graduating on time, and while 62 percent of N.C. fourth graders aren’t proficient in reading, that’s lower than the 65 percent clocked in the 2015 report.

While the Kids Count report doesn’t list individual counties, statistics provided by N.C. Child show that children in Rowan County are struggling.

By 2013, 27.8 percent of Rowan County children were living in poverty – higher than the state average, and a few ticks higher than the 27.2 percent reported in 2012. It’s also a higher percentage than nearly all of Rowan’s neighbors. The Salisbury Post used Cabarrus, Davidson, Davie, Forsyth, Iredell, Mecklenburg and Stanly as neighboring counties for comparison. The only counties with a higher rate of children in poverty were Forsyth, at 30.4 percent, and Davidson, at 28.3 percent.

But Rowan County outstrips its neighbors when it comes to free and reduced lunch. Nearly 62 percent of Rowan County children received free and reduced lunch as of 2012 – higher than any of the comparative counties.

According to the report, the ongoing lack of opportunity is largely a result of families and communities being left behind before and during the post-recession economic recovery.

But there is good news: More children are growing up in households where at least one parent holds a high school diploma, the percent of teens abusing drugs and alcohol dropped 29 percent between 2008 and 2014, more children state and nation-wide are receiving insurance and health care and Rowan County also has a lower teen pregnancy rate than surrounding counties, with 22.5 teen pregnancies per 1,000 births – it’s only topped by Cabarrus and Davidson counties.

Between 2011 and 2012, the most recent years available, graduation rates in Rowan County skyrocketed from 76.9 percent to 81.1 percent, and the data report shows that a higher percentage of students are graduating on time throughout the state.

However, Laila Bell, a data analyst with N.C. Child, said that graduation rates are a reflection of policy changes made in the mid to late ’90s that provided supports for young children – supports that have since been removed. In a few years, that will likely be reflected in data.

“So we’re kind of failing that cohort of kids,” she said.

And Rowan County’s graduation rate is still lower than all comparatives but Mecklenberg and Forsyth.

Bell said there are very clear links between public policy and improved child outcomes, and there are connections between policy and initiatives that began at a community level – she pointed to the lower teen pregnancy rate, which is supported by policies that provide services to at-risk teens.

“All of those things have been started at the community level,” Bell said.

But there are still things that need to be addressed – like the growing financial insecurity of North Carolina children.

“It just creates a sense of urgency,” she said.

And while North Carolina’s move up in rank is a sign of positive change, the state is still falling behind the rest of the nation. There’s a lot of work left to be done, Bell said.

“I’m proud of the progress we’ve made in health and education,” said Michelle Hughes, executive director of N.C. Child in an e-mailed release. “Now it’s time for North Carolina’s leaders to implement public policies that remove barriers to our next generation’s financial success.”

 Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.