State working to counter poverty's effect on children

By Lucy McFadden

The sun finally broke through the clouds for the first morning in weeks on Tuesday as Colorado Lieutenant Governor Barbara O’Brien stood on the West Steps of the Capitol to speak to the media about the 2009 KidsCount in Colorado! Report.

The report included the fact that the number of children living in poverty in Colorado has jumped by 85 percent since 2000, and now exceeds 192,000 children. The number of impoverished Colorado children under age 6 has increased 50 percent since 2000, from 14 percent to 21 percent. (The national average is 22 percent.)

“Children’s minds and bodies are distinctively trying to learn about the world and figure out what normal is. Normal should be curious and energetic, but for some kids, it’s fearful and withdrawn. Sometimes there is no energy left for learning and brain development,” O’Brien said in discussing the oppressive effects of poverty.

There is, however, a ray of hope. O’Brien said the effects of that poverty may be somewhat mitigated if Colorado is selected to participate in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. The lieutenant governor pushed for the program earlier in the week, when she attended the Race to the Top Summit at the National Governor’s Association meeting in North Carolina.

Race to the Top is a grant program that will divide $4.35 billion among eight to 10 states, and O’Brien, who is spearheading Colorado’s effort, says the state is well-poised to qualify for the funds.

“Every single policy area discussed at the Race to the Top Summit indicates that Colorado is well-positioned to receive Race to the Top funds,” she said. “However, we still know that we have to push the boundaries of innovation and achievement to be successful.”

At the summit, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explained that states with the most innovative education policies in teaching, the best rate of turning around low-performing schools and other high scores in student assessments are most likely to receive part of the grant.

O’Brien also spoke about her collaboration with Gov. Bill Ritter to support Senate Bill 164, Colorado Child’s Welfare Training Academy. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, mandates that caseworkers complete a training program before they can take a child protection caseload. There are 400 trained caseworkers ready to help in the welfare system.

O’Brien also has made changes to streamline the process of applying for welfare and has supported legislation that put subsidies into the welfare system to make it more affordable. She stressed the importance of Colorado having high quality preschools in closing the “achievement gap,” which 2009 KidsCount in Colorado! Report describes as the unequal achievement of children based on race, ethnicity or income.

The KidsCount for Colorado! Report is part of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which works to provide better quality child care and education programs for young children. These improvements “will both mitigate the negative effects of poverty on young children and help parents find and keep jobs,” said Chris Watney, interim president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

“We are looking at how we license teachers from kindergarten to third grade in hopes that we can strengthen this [sector],” O’Brien said.

The 2009 KidsCount in Colorado! campaign, along with Center for Education Policy Analysis and other organizations, helps collect research for Colorado’s proposal for the Race to the Top grant.

Alex Medler, vice president for research and analysis at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said, “We are very interested in the early childhood component; it’s the best place to accelerate things and keep achievement gaps from happening.”

Medler explained that the campaign helps by studying such school problems as drop out rates. They then analyze the data and give it back to the schools to improve their turn-around strategies. “We create a context for profound reform to work,” he said.

The campaign also gathers data on teachers and their correlation with student performance. After the best teachers are identified, the campaign suggests that they be placed in classes where students need the most help.

O’Brien reported that Duncan told conference participants that $350 million will be available for the development of state assessment tests, and states that present comprehensive plans to deal with the schools that rank in the lowest 1 percent for performance would be likely candidates for receiving funds.

The states must send in proposals 30 days after a final Request for Proposals is sent out, which is expected to be this September.