A panel assembled Thursday morning at the Lessie Bates Neighborhood Child Care Center on State Street drove home to the community the message that "kids count."
The five-member panel challenged state lawmakers to put kids first and appropriate the necessary funding to allow children access to early childhood and preschool programs, health care and good nutrition in Illinois.
The panel was part of a press conference put together by Voices For Illinois Children. The panelists discussed the significant progress that various children advocacy groups have garnered on behalf of children and families over the last 25 years. But, they said that progress is at risk because of budget cuts and now the health, safety and well-being of Illinois children is threatened as is a more prosperous future for the state as a whole.
The discussion centered on the Kids Count report of 2013. The report calls for a renewing commitment to children and families.
"The Illinois Kids Count 2013 report focuses on 25 years of achievements in early child education and health-care services. Over that time, we've accomplished many good things for children and families. Now, the challenge is to make sure that this progress continues," said Aundrae Young, of the Lessie Bates Neighborhood staff.
According to the report, "Some of the most significant achievements have involved expanding access to early childhood education, health-care coverage and affordable child care."
Other gains the report touts include substantially improving the child welfare system, establishing and strengthening the state earned income tax credit for low-income working families and adopting social and emotional learning standards for Illinois public schools.
The theme that panelists used was "Moving Policy, Making Progress." They said it took a collaborative effort between a number of groups to move public policy and make progress. Question such as "Are we doing enough or are we sliding backwards?" and "Do we need to pay more attention to something?" were raised.
Kim Hunt, director of Southern Region Child Care Services in Granite City, said child advocacy groups must continue to advocate for the necessary funding to make sure that there are enough programs available to get children off to a great start.
She said education of a child begins as soon as it is born. She said that child needs structure and love immediately in its early years.
The Kids Count report 2013 said over the past several decades "there has been a quiet revolution in health-care coverage for Illinois children. About 1.7 million children are now enrolled in Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and All Kids Expansion. In 2011 the rate for uninsured children was 3.7 -- "the ;lowest in the Midwest and fifth lowest among the 50 states," the report said.
Arthur Culver, superintendent of East St. Louis School District 189, told the crowd that included parents, Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood workers, community leaders and citizens, that the homeless situation for teen-agers in East St. Louis was 350 in 2011 and is now more than 500.
Culver said if there is not enough money, he feels the state should not follow one standard formula of allocating money. "They may have to reallocate this based on need," Culver said.
In 2009, there were 440 students in pre-K in District 189 and in the last four years because of statewide cuts ... the number is down from 440 to 220 children who are enrolled in the district's pre -K program.
Culver said East St. Louis dependent on 93 percent of its funding from the state to educate its children.
"Our kids are important, too. They have challenges, but some of the students who have graduated who had some obstacles have gone on to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, surgeons, politicians, and business people," Culver said.
"Our kids are "born to win, engineered with success and endowed with the seeds of greatness. Education is the gateway to success," he said. Without it, a life of poverty or crime can come into play, Culver said.
Hunt added that the prison system determines how many police they will need by the number of males who can't read by the time they reach the third grade.
Mark Freeland, executive director of the Southern Illinois Regional Wellness Center, said three issues with children -- obesity, oral health care and proper nutrition -- need more funding in order that they can be dealt with. In Illinois, 61.7 percent of its children are classified as obese.
"Obesity leads to other maladies such as diabetes and heart disease. He said now health care providers are seeing a higher level of Type 2 diabetes in children because of obesity. Children must get active and eat healthier, Freeland said.
"Illinois kids do count and they need to count on us," he said.
Rick Sems, regional president for financial services at PNC Bank in St. Louis and a father of six, told the audience that he "believes in early childhood education" because the research data shows that children who receive early educational services are 50 percent more likely to graduate from high school and are three times more likely to go to college. And he said, "Parents have to be involved."
Mayor Alvin L. Parks said education has to be the centerpiece of building or rebuilding a community.
"Its education, infrastructure and public safety. You cannot get away from this. You have to focus on education. You don't sacrifice education," Parks said.