WILKES-BARRE – The numbers may seem abstract: More young children living in low-income families, fewer of them getting into publicly funded pre-kindergarten classes, state-subsidized day care virtually flat-lined.
But the real-world consequences for children under 5 years old can be profound for them and their families.
Probably 80 to 85 percent of our children are subsidized by the state, Catholic Youth Center Executive Director Mark Soprano said. If it weren't for that subsidy, those parents most likely couldn't have their children in day care. The impact would be huge for families making minimum wage or slightly above it.
The CYC is one of many area agencies that provide services to pre-school children designed to make sure those children enter school with the skills needed to succeed.
The availability and need for such programs is tracked by the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, which prepares an annual School Readiness Report showing whether the state and each county has improved availability to services or let it slip.
The most recent report, issued Nov. 13, offered mixed news. While this year's School Readiness Report bears some good news and shows some troubling signs, the introduction noted, overall it reflects a lack of significant progress in many crucial areas that affect young children and their families.
The number of available slots in the state subsidized child care program, for example, barely budged in Luzerne County, from 786 to 790. Yet Soprano noted the demand for such care has increased recently at CYC.
We think people are going back to work, Soprano said, and they can often hold a job only if the state subsidy helps them keep the child in day care while they work.
We also have a lot of young mothers, parents who are still in school, maybe working a part-time job, Soprano added. For them, having subsidized day care can be the difference between graduating and dropping out.
The report also shows that Luzerne County bucked a state trend in the number of children getting into publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs.
Locally, the number of children ages 3 and 4 enrolled in public school Pre-K, Head Start or state-funded Pre-K Counts programs nudged up from 1,131 to 1,163. Statewide it dropped from 52,137 to 48,907.
Part of the local success may stem from area school districts deciding to keep existing kindergarten and pre-K programs intact despite state cuts in money that had funded such programs in the past. For Luzerne County Head Start, keeping most of the state-funded slots (the program is primarily federally funded) meant reworking the program.
The state doled out money for Head Start through a competitive grant process this year, Executive Director Lynn Biga said.
We have four fewer state-funded children. We reworked our budget to provide what we thought was a better service. The time spent in the classroom increased from 4.5 hours to 5 hours, and the number of days rose from 161 to 180, Biga said.
Biga was puzzled at the numbers regarding health insurance. According to the report, Luzerne County saw the number of children ages 4 and under lacking health insurance increase from 864 to 1,382, a 60 percent jump, compared to a 1.5 percent increase statewide.
The uninsured are not our kids, Biga said.
Making sure enrolled children get available public insurance coverage is a high priority at Head Start. And because Head Start is designed to help low-income families, those children are always eligible for public insurance
The increase in uninsured could be children on our waiting list, Biga speculated, or families that don't know how to sign up.
The brightest spot in the report statewide may be a substantial increase in children enrolled in the state's early intervention program. Overall, the number increased from 82,914 to 88,015, a 6 percent climb. Locally, it nudged up only from 1,500 to 1,514.
The early intervention program tries to help children with developmental delays or disabilities before they enter school. The state pays based on the services provided.
Wyoming Valley Children's Association is one of the local agencies that provides those services, through a contract with Hazleton Area School District.
The goal of early intervention is to get therapy to the children when they are young so they won't need it when they hit school age, Supervisor of Education and Therapy Services Theresa Romano said.
The association works with a wide range of developmental disorders, including autism spectrum, cerebral palsy, visual impairment and language disabilities.
The number of children receiving services may not have increased much locally, but the type of services needed has changed, Executive Director Kathleen Williams said.
More children are being identified with behavioral needs based on an autism disorder.
It's never too early to start helping children overcome such problems, United Way of Wyoming Valley President Bill Jones said. The United Way provides funding for many local agencies offering those services.
A healthy start for a child begins when that child is in the womb, Jones said, noting many agencies have programs that include visiting the home to make sure parents know proper prenatal nutrition and parenting skills.
Studies have repeatedly shown early intervention saves money in the long run by increasing odds children will succeed once they enter school, reducing the chances they will require special education services.
A lot of our dollars are used to subsidize these programs, Jones said. And it's just never enough.