Jose Cardenas: Children's action alliance in partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation released two new comprehensive data reports on the status of Arizona families and children. One of the statistics in the Arizona kids count data book shows Arizona ranks 46th in the nation on overall conditions for children, only one spot better than last year’s data book. With me to talk about the data is Dana Wolfe Naimark, president and CEO of Children's Action Alliance. And Dr. Rene Diaz, board member for the Children’s Action Alliance and past executive director for the Arizona Hispanic School Administrators Association. Thank you both for joining us to talk about this subject. We just finished an interview talking about young children coming from Central America. And everybody's talking about that, the politicians, it's a big thing in the current gubernatorial campaign. Nobody's talking about the kids who are here.
Dana Wolfe Naimark: Not yet.
Jose Cardenas: Yet this report suggests that we need to be talking about that and doing some serious remedial work.
Dana Wolfe Naimark: I think that's a really important point. We have 1.6 million children growing up within our Borders, who are part of our community, who are our future, and candidates better be talking about that. And more than talking, they should be developing their action plans and positions to improve children's health, education and security.
Jose Cardenas: Before we talk about how they might be persuaded to do that, give us a summary of some of the most significant findings in this report. I know there's actually some good news. Before we get to that let's talk about some of the things that are a real problem.
Dana Wolfe Naimark: One of the biggest problems is very low preschool participation. We rank 49th, second worst in the country, and we've gone in the wrong direction. When we look at trends within Arizona our preschool participation has gone down since 2000. There is a ton of research about the positive impact of preschool. It helps children start kindergarten ready to succeed. If they start behind it's hard to ever catch up. We have children of all races and ethnicities at risk. Latino children have very low preschool participation rates and could benefit the most by helping them to start kindergarten on a par with their peers.
Jose Cardenas: We have a lot that tells you how important the Latino population is to the future of Arizona. We're not making much progress, though.
Rene Diaz: Unfortunately, no. It's been the same over the last decades, couple of decades, in terms of our Latino students being as successful as they could be. So it's important to be able to concentrate on that with our Latino kids. And in 2009, there were more Latino kids in grades kindergarten to third grade. And then in 2011 that's when the K-12 student population became Latino. There were more Latino kids in K-12 schools in the state of Arizona than ever before. So there's more Latinos now in the school. So we need to be able to pay attention to them and make sure they are successful.
Jose Cardenas: This report, though, is not very encouraging in that regard. What can be done to really get people's attention? I was talking to Dana before, how do you get the politicians to focus on this.
Rene Diaz: To me, Jose, there were two key issues in the report. The first one was that the state of Arizona is not taking care of its children. Again, Dana just mentioned that we're ranked 46th in the nation when it comes to overall conditions of kids. The second key issue to me is that it's real clear that the conditions and opportunities for Latino students that are living in Arizona today, will shape the future of Arizona's families, workforce and economy. It is clear. And why do I say that’s part of the data I just provided for you? There's more Latinos attending our schools than any or student group. So we need to focus. That's the question, what is it that we can do. Going right back to what Dana mentioned, we need to focus on the preschool. Get the students enrolled and start helping them be successful. Because if kids fall behind, if the students are not reading at grade level by third grade they almost never catch up.
When I share that type of information people say, oh, no, that's hard to believe. Oh, yeah, it's true. They start falling behind in the early grades and pretty soon their frustration comes in. There's a term that's used in terms of the disconnected youth. Disconnected youth are identified as students or youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school nor work. They are not working or in school. Phoenix leads the nation in disconnected youth. One out of every five young people in that age bracket are considered disconnected. Which means they are not in school and not working.
Jose Cardenas: Recently, Dana, you may have been on the panel when we talked about that. Going back to some of the statistics, you've got the natural report and a companion Arizona data book. I know I think the national report talks about the 49% figure from low-income families?
Dana Wolfe Naimark: Right, that's in our Arizona report. 49% of kids throughout our state live in low-income families.
Jose Cardenas: And it's worse for a number of counties in the state, am I right?
Dana Wolfe Naimark: It is. And actually, in 12 counties it's more than half of our kids. This is a prevalent characteristic of families and children in our state and one we cannot afford to ignore. I think the good news is there are tools and practical strategies that can work to help kids. We have some profiles of Arizona families and kids along with the data in the report, and what we know from that is of course it takes personal responsibility. It takes loving parents and mentors and hard work. It also takes systems around us that help us succeed. We all count on systems, public and private. We need to strengthen some of those systems for early education, for child care, for health care for children. If we strengthen those systems we know that Latino children, white children, American Indian children can have a greater chance for success.
Jose Cardenas: And Dr. Diaz, there is other good news in that report. One has to do with the rate of arrest for juveniles for violent crimes.
Rene Diaz: Yes, that is down.
Jose Cardenas: And down rather significantly.
Rene Diaz: I believe so. I don't remember the actually data on that? What was it Dana?
Dana Wolfe Naimark: The rate is down by about half since 2000 so it's pretty dramatic. And statewide in 2013 there were only 1600 youth arrested for violent crimes. That's incredibly low and probably much lower than most viewers would have guessed. So that is a good news we can build on that by making sure that kids of all ages have opportunities for positive experiences.
Jose Cardenas: The other good news is graduation, graduation rates.
Rene Diaz: Yes graduation rates have also gone up. The schools I believe are, Dana used the term system. The school system, the school districts are looking at their entire organizational systems and trying to make improvements there. And part of the graduation rate much of the general public blames the high school districts for the dropout rate and the graduation rate but it really begins in the lower grades. It's critical that we connect all the students in the elementary schools that they are being successful in the elementary schools and experience that success, so then they also have experience in high school so they can graduate. But yes, the school systems are devoting their attention and their focus on that graduation rate, to make sure more students are being successful and graduating.
Jose Cardenas: So Dana, timing some people might say is not good, to expect the legislature to put more money into these issues. They are now faced with a court ruling that says they have to pay billions into the school system that they owe. Is that going help or hurt?
Dana Wolfe Naimark: It's not only about money, it's about leadership, focus, working together on strategies that work. We have this challenge now before us that we should be very excited about. To go back and rematch our budget to connect with voter priorities for education, to reinvest in children into that educational success. It gives us a chance to reset and reboot our overall budget and tax priorities, and look at all of trade-offs we've made and re-examine them.
Jose Cardenas: We'll see soon how successful we are and this discussion will be of some help. Thank you both for joining to us talk about this important topic.
Jose Cardenas: Don't forget if you want to watch previous episodes or find out what's coming up go to our website at azpbs.org and click on "Horizonte." That's our show for tonight. From all of us here, Horizonte and Eight, I'm Jose Cardenas, have a good evening.