Using 28 key indicators of child well-being across California’s 58 counties, Children Now, an organization dedicated to promoting children’s health and education, recently gave Madera County two-and-a-half stars out of five in both education and health, and three stars for child welfare and economic well-being.
These rankings show the county’s ability to meet the educational and health needs of children, and are based on standardized scoring.
California Now believes its California Children’s Report Card will not only help counties focus on areas that need improvement, but also see where children are doing well.
Children Now statistics indicate there are an estimated 9.2 million children in the state, 43,015 of whom live in Madera County (73% Latino, 21% White, 2% African-American, 1% Asian, 3% other); 32% of families in this county can afford basic living expenses; and 34% of children live in poverty, compared to 23% in the entire state.
For Madera County Superintendent of Education, Dr. Cecelia Massetti, the statistic showing that only 32% of families can afford basic living expenses was alarming.
“One must conclude that 68% of our families in the Madera County community cannot afford basic living expenses,” Massetti said, “and children are coming to school without their basic needs met. We have a lot of poverty in Madera County and that condition impacts a child’s readiness to learn, which emphasizes the continued need for Education, Health and Child Welfare Agencies to partner and work together for the betterment of our community.”
It comes as no surprise, given the statistic on basic living expenses, that the report further found that 34% of the county’s children live in poverty.
“I would suspect that the number of children living in poverty in our county is higher than that,” Director of Madera County Child Welfare Services Kelly Woodard explained. “Poverty is an unfortunate common theme to the people we serve. We struggle with high unemployment, not enough industry, not enough jobs, burgeoning substance abuse, migrant workers who move from community to community ... many issues that create poverty. My educated guess is that 60-70% of Madera County access some form of public assistance and social services.”
When it comes to child welfare, Madera County scored high, ranking 14th for children in the child welfare system who exit to permanency within three years, but received a low ranking (37th) for young children (ages 0-3) who do not experience recurring neglect or abuse.
“We actively work with the community partners and families in achieving permanency for children, whether it’s getting them back with families (reunification) or finding an adoptive home for them,” Madera County Deputy Director of Child Welfare Services Danny Morris said.
“We took over the adoption department three years ago from the State Department of Social Services because funding had changed, and began an aggressive approach in how we can improve outcomes for children across the board in child welfare services.”
As for ranking 37th, Morris added, “Statewide, children 0-5 years have fewer eyes on them because they’re not in school, but we are working with First 5, Behavioral Health and the Public Health Department to reduce the number of children in our county experiencing recurring abuse or neglect.”
Compared to other California counties, Madera County ranked near the bottom in a few educational categories, including third graders who read at grade level; students who are ready for college-level math; youth who attend school or who are employed; and high school seniors who graduate on time.
Statistically, Madera County ranked high in expulsions for serious offenses, not willful defiance, mainly within the Latino population, and also ranked high for offering low-income students access to state-funded after school programs.
“This report has a collection of good research on services that we know impact education, like preschool attendance, student engagement, and qualifications of teachers,” Massetti said. “As always with a report, the information is helpful in improving our local schools ... and may guide local districts as they look at the implementation of their district plans. As with any information, we should look at both the areas for improvement and also areas where we are doing well.”
Massetti said that while the county has a lower rate in students who are ready for college-level math courses, the report did indicate a 2% increase from 2012.
“Still, this is an area of concern,” Massetti continued. “The Madera County Office of Education (MCOE) and school districts are currently applying for a three-year mathematics grant to train up to 50 middle school teachers in the county to address this specific content area. As for expulsions, 97% of the expulsions are limited to serious offenses, not willful defiance. This indicates that the schools are suspending for behaviors that meet the requirements of the law.”
Regarding the health of children, the county ranked 50th out of 58 for children who are in a healthy weight zone.
“Poverty is one of the main variables that plays into the obesity equation because people with low-incomes, living on a tight budget, are more concerned about having food to eat over what they are actually eating, and unfortunately, foods that are the unhealthiest (full of sugar and unhealthy fats) are usually the cheapest,” Gilda Zarate-Gonzalez, program manager for Madera County Public Health said. “We are deeply concerned about this, and believe childhood obesity is the biggest health challenge of this generation.”
The department is working diligently with the community, school districts, and area agencies to combat this issue.
“Children are the most vulnerable because they depend on decisions that adults make for them, so we need to ensure that all the decision-makers understand this issue and support the necessary changes,” Zarate-Gonzales continued. “We’ve appealed to the school districts to offer better food choices, and have been very successful in getting Head Start programs to offer milk with a lowfat content instead of flavored milk, to replace sugar-added juices with plain water.”
With their main focus on the two areas of healthier food choices and a more active lifestyle, it is an uphill battle.
“Unfortunately many of our Madera County residents do not engage in physical activity because they don’t feel safe; some areas don’t lend themselves to walking to school or to the grocery store,” Zarate-Gonzales said.
“The problem in rural areas is that there are no parks, no place for children to play. Some school districts are very interested in offering healthier food choices, and others don’t believe it’s a priority, saying that the residents they serve wouldn’t support menu changes.”
Public Health applied for and received a grant to develop two new parks after parents in the community said they wanted more places for their children to play, which will give them increased opportunities to engage in healthier activities.
“We can’t do this alone, and aren’t shying away from the issue,” Zarate-Gonzalez said. “We are working in partnership with residents and area agencies in a concerted effort to turn things around for the children in Madera County.”
According to Children Now, there were only two California counties to receive a four-star rating - Marin and El Dorado; and Kern County, with only two out of five stars, was ranked the lowest.