Annual Kids Count report shows Illinois kids still at risk

Illinois kids are falling behind in terms of reading achievement – especially those from low-income families – and the state’s fiscal crisis means that gap may grow as funding for important programs is lost.

Those are two of the findings in the Illinois Kids Count 2011 report, a project by Voices for Illinois Children that analyzes data to keep track of the educational, social-emotional, economic and physical well-being of Illinois kids.

This year’s report, entitled “Great at Eight,” focuses on the importance of early childhood education and programming to help children succeed in school when they reach age 8.

According to the report, of Illinois children beginning fourth grade, only 32 percent were at or above proficient levels of reading, compared to 31 percent six years ago. Reading proficiency implies that children are able to interpret what they read and use that understanding to draw conclusions and make evaluations.

Fourth-graders performing at or above a basic level went from 61 to 65 percent in that same time period.

“By the end of third grade, students need to be able to make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn,” says Kathy Ryg, president of Voices for Illinois Children. “Reading achievement for these children is one very important predictor of high school graduation rates, future earning potential and other indicators of success.”

The report also points to the reading achievement gap between low-income students and those who are not. Among the 10 largest states in the country, Illinois was second only to California in this category.

Children from low-income families represented 45 percent of enrollment in all Illinois public schools, although in Chicago, Cicero, Rockford and Waukegan that number is above 70 percent.

And even in places like DuPage County, typically thought of as affluent, large school districts have high low-income enrollment. In West Chicago, 64 percent of students are from low-income families.

“There are pockets of poverty in DuPage County and there always have been,” says Sue Broad, executive director of the DuPage Children’s Museum. “It’s important to get the word out, [especially] in communities where it feels like everything is taken care of.”

According to advocacy groups, it’s also important to make sure legislators are aware of the facts so they will fund programs that help to close the achievement gap.

“This is a real opportunity for us to inform state leaders,” says Jeanna Capito of Positive Parenting DuPage. “[But we’re] not just focusing on how cuts are affecting programs, we’re championing the success of the strong, good programming we provide.”

The state’s fiscal crisis means nonprofit organizations and school districts are increasingly dependent on grants to keep programs running. As a result of budget cuts in 2010, about 5,000 fewer students were able to participate in state-funded pre-K programs, and another drop is expected this year.

In West Chicago, a preschool for at-risk children used to have 380 students whose parents could not access private childcare options. This year, enrollment is down to 80. According to Superintendent Ed Leman, without funding, the program will disappear next year.

The loss of these types of programs isn’t just bad for the communities they serve, it’s bad for the whole state, Ryg says.

“Quality programs and services address far more than the needs of low-income children and families,” she says. “They benefit everyone by producing a healthier, better-educated, more productive workforce and society.”

And in Illinois, it begins before kids turn 8.

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