The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
With more than one in five Arizona children living in poverty, I believe we can and must do more to support children’s success for their own well-being as well as for the current and future viability of our community.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation publishes a Kids Count Profile that ranks child well-being in four areas: health, education, family/community and economic well-being. Although Arizona has made some improvements since the 2017 study, Arizona’s children rank 46th in the nation. Out of 50 states, only children in Nevada (47), Mississippi (48), New Mexico (49) and Louisiana (50) are in more dire straits.
Many poor children suffer health consequences from food scarcity or a lack of dental and medical care. For some, the care they receive at school is all that is available to them outside of emergency rooms. Children living in poor families are more likely to attend underfunded district public schools. Their parents and caregivers may be working several jobs to make ends meet and are unable to help their children with homework. These children may be at risk of homelessness or suffer other types of trauma associated with their socio-economic group, such has having a parent in prison.
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Here in our local community, 70% of Tucson Unified School District students receive free or reduced lunch. Through the Community Eligibility Program, many students are receiving free breakfasts and lunches at school as well as meals during the summer break. In addition, fifteen TUSD schools are also providing supper to needy children.
In Tucson, students and families are blessed with several nonprofit organizations that help K-12 children improve their chances for a better life. Make Way for Books offers literacy learning experiences for the families and caregivers of our youngest children in order to prepare them to enter school ready to learn. Literacy Connects provides tutors for elementary school students and language learning classes for adults. The Educational Enrichment Foundation provides much needed clothing and personal hygiene products for youth as well as other types of support for TUSD educators and families.
Low-income children often lack the necessary reading materials and technology in their homes that help students succeed in school and in life. We can improve the learning support we offer Arizona’s K-12 students through library services in every school building. Students, classroom teachers and families deserve access to literacy learning materials, including books and tech tools that are readily available to them in their school libraries. Professional school librarians who select resources and teach alongside classroom teachers help students develop as readers and thinkers and help them meet standards. Librarians also sponsor literacy events that invite families into their children’s school culture of learning.
At this time of year when the spirit of caring and giving enters our hearts, minds and activities, I hope we will remember the “least of these” among us. We must provide all of our children with a clear path to a brighter future. We can do this if we come together as a community … and appeal to the Arizona Legislature with one voice.
Please wish your representatives a joyful holiday season and invite them to become a member of the bipartisan caucus of legislators focused on early childhood education and children’s well-being. If they truly care and want to share, Arizona decision-makers will dedicate the 2020 legislative session to meeting the health, education and economic needs of all of Arizona’s youth. Let’s make sure they know child well-being must be a top priority.
Judi Moreillon, Ph.D., is a lead advocate for TUSD’s School Librarian Restoration Project.