National Report Finds That Children in Alaska are Struggling
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Recent data reveals that Alaska’s children are facing difficulties in crucial areas like education and health, according to an analysis presented to state legislators. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, in collaboration with local non-profit organizations including the Alaska Children’s Trust, collected data that positioned Alaska at the 41st spot among states for overall child well-being.
The Kids Count report highlighted education and health as two categories in which Alaska’s children struggled. The report also included data on children’s family and community, as well as economic well-being. The findings indicated that Alaska ranked second to last in terms of education. Trevor Storrs, President and CEO of the Alaska Children’s Trust, emphasized the need for increased support for education in response to this ranking. He acknowledged the inclination of some individuals to reduce education spending due to perceived ineffectiveness but argued against this approach.
Storrs likened the current situation to choking someone, stating that it should come as no surprise that they struggle to take a full breath. This analogy underscored the importance of adequately supporting education.
Education has recently become a contentious issue in Alaska, with many advocating for an increase in the base student allocation to secure more funding for each student in public schools. Gary Stevens, Senate President and member of the Senate Education Committee, expressed his caucus’s commitment to prioritizing education funding. In an interview, Stevens raised concerns about potential changes in the Alaska education system, particularly highlighting the dangers of removing essential subjects like health and sexual education from the curriculum. He emphasized the importance of addressing issues that are significant to students.
The report also shed light on concerns about student proficiency in reading and math. Between 2009 and 2019, the percentage of 8th-grade students lacking proficiency in math and 4th-grade students lacking proficiency in reading increased.
Furthermore, the report unveiled a lack of school readiness not only among middle and elementary school students but also among those entering kindergarten. On average, only one-third of children entering kindergarten between 2021 and 2022 were considered adequately prepared for school.
Storrs highlighted that the analysis of children’s well-being signifies the need for a comprehensive conversation about their successes and aspirations. He emphasized the importance of guiding children onto the right path and ensuring their safety, nurturing, and security, all while supporting parents within an uplifting community.
While some legislators support a broad-based increase in education funding, others remain skeptical. Senator Shelley Hughes expressed reservations about indiscriminate funding boosts as a solution to the complex issue of education in Alaska. She believes that schools ought to demonstrate effective use of current funds before requesting additional budget allocations. Hughes suggests directing funds towards teachers through increased salaries and employer-sponsored retirement plans. She also advocates for granting teachers greater autonomy to determine what best suits each individual child’s needs.
Hughes argues that by offering more support to teachers, issues like low reading proficiency percentages among middle and high school students could be addressed. She emphasizes the necessity of precision and careful planning if the welfare of children is genuinely a priority.
While education remains a significant concern in Alaska, Storrs urged legislators to also consider the poor state of child welfare concerning health. One particular aspect highlighted in the report is teen suicide. In 2019, 22% of Alaska high school students admitted to planning a suicide attempt within the past year. Storrs attributes this distressing statistic to various stressors, including isolation and increased social media usage, which may have been exacerbated by the pandemic. He likens these stressors and others impacting child well-being in Alaska to an elastic band, which can only be stretched so far before snapping.
When it comes to upstream prevention, Storrs argues that improving the well-being of children should begin with improving their economic situation.
Storrs explains in an interview, "We know that economic well-being plays a significant role in many of the social factors that negatively affect families."
A crucial aspect of this economic well-being involves providing Alaskans with adequate housing, food security, a fair wage, and parental leave, among other measures.
Storrs believes that economic well-being can have a cascading effect. When families are less burdened by financial worries, they can focus more on providing for their families and children. He says, "By bringing economic positivity and success to families, we can enhance their access to resources."
While the statistics may seem discouraging, Storrs advises against adopting a pessimistic attitude. He states, "Just because we’re not doing as well doesn’t mean we’re doing poorly overall." He emphasizes the importance of considering a broader perspective when examining the challenges faced by Alaska’s children, particularly in comparison to the rest of the country.
Furthermore, there are areas where Alaska has made positive strides in child welfare. Notably, the percentage of teenage births has significantly decreased in Alaska since 2010, which aligns with the national trend. The report also reveals an increase in children’s participation in after-school activities compared to previous years.
Storrs encourages lawmakers to keep these positive trends in mind when assessing the state of child welfare, to avoid fixating on a single negative statistic. However, he also highlights the more significant problems that he believes Alaska should address.
"Our systems are being neglected to the point where they cannot provide the necessary knowledge, skills, support, and resources that children and families in our communities require to succeed," he explains. "Our children and families are suffering."
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