Jim Stringfellow: We must work as one for the sake of children

Published: Monday, January 4, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 1, 2010 at 10:52 p.m.

The recent news of a $4 million shortfall in the sheriff's budget, due to the cost of providing health care to county prisoners, blew me away.

But the $4 million is not the full story. Adding in the county share the actual cost of providing health care to our incarcerated is an astounding $7.6 million each year!

That is just part of the $29 million it costs to fund our county jail, and it shows us vividly how we are failing as a community that prides itself on its quality of life.

Here, fellow citizens, are the facts of the matter:

There are 2,900 babies born every year in Alachua County. Fully 30 percent of these infants are classified as "at risk." That is, they are born into a world of poverty, single mom, abuse and/or neglect, substance abuse, domestic violence, emotional disturbance within the family. They are likely to become involved with the Department of Children and Families. They may be homeless. They may have a father who is incarcerated. They may live in squalor and, often, hopelessness.

A large body of data shows that this 30 percent (about 870 children) if left in existing conditions will not be adequately prepared, either health-wise, socially or academically, to enter kindergarten. They will fall further behind their peers each school year, eventually becoming one of the 300 to 500 high schoolers in this county who drop out to begin a life of unemployment, drug use, gang membership and, very often, criminal activity.

Recently our Juvenile Justice Council looked at the school records of 102 recent juvenile offenders. These kids all showed early signs of school failure, poor reading skills, disruptive classroom behavior and chronic truancy, eventually dropping out of school.

The average reading level of our county prisoners is the fourth grade!

Over many years federal, state and local governments have attempted to address the high school quality/dropout issue. The subject is extremely complex, involving socioeconomic, cultural and yes, racial issues (80 percent of black babies are born here to unwed mothers, many of them teenagers}.

Despite the funding and many programs intended to resolve the dropout problem, few address the root cause preventive programs, such as home visitation, child and parenting intervention from birth on. These programs are proving effective in cutting edge communities such as Hampton, Va., and, more recently Jacksonville and St. Petersburg.

Those cities are working closely with their school boards to implement programs based on The Harlem Childrens Zone/Baby College innovative system that, in five years, has totally transformed the toughest 97 blocks in Harlem, N.Y., from the highest dropout rate in the state to among the leaders in graduating seniors.

Jacksonville, incidentally, now has two of the top 100 high schools in the nation.

Our United Way, Alachua County Children's Alliance and many civic leaders have long pleaded that if our community is going to be able to have an effect on our dismal dropout and crime rates, our elected officials must begin to work together to build a long-range vision that would:

Develop a plan that would involve and coordinate all agencies and organizations that serve children and that would achieve measurable outcome.

Assure that complete and permanent funding is made available to assure success.

This is a tough time to talk funding to commissioners who face serious budget problems daily.

However, they must realize that long-range studies have shown that $1 invested in early development of our at-risk children brings back $17 into the community later.

You can see from the figures above how this can be. It costs about $30,000 a year to house an average inmate.

Recently our city commission hosted an exciting presentation by the staffers from the St. Petersburg mayor's office and school board showing how they are working closely together to implement a Harlem Childrens Zone-type system.

Their mayor also has pledged to have a children's playground built on school grounds spaced so that every child in his city is within walking distance of a fully-equipped playground.

Our own city commission, to its credit, has recently incorporated an early childhood development program into its long-term vision statement.

Unfortunately, even though the St. Petersburg presentation was attended by representatives from The United Way, the Chamber of Commerce, our two top law enforcement leaders, The Partnership For Strong Families, DCF, and numerous child agency and children's organization leaders, the school board had only one member present and the county commission none.

It is up to us citizens to urge these political leaders to work better together. There is just too much at stake to do otherwise.

Jim Stringfellow chairs the Partnership for Strong Families, a community-based nonprofit that cares for abused and neglected children in the Gainesville area.

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