Kids Count

Akeelah Thomas, 14, participates in the Decatur Youth Services Summer Youth Employment Program as an office assistant at Decatur Animal Shelter. [COURTESY PHOTO]

A recent report that ranks Alabama 47th in the country in overall child well-being only reinforces to the director of the city program for at-risk youths and their families the need for robust programs during the summer and throughout the year. 

“Our goal is to help young people realize they can become something great and become something greater than their environment,” said Brandon Watkins, the director of Decatur Youth Services. “We’ll probably reach about 1,500 kids this summer. For the whole year, we reach almost 3,000 kids.”

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Book uses 16 indicators with data from 2000 to 2018 and ranks each state across four areas: health, education, economic well-being, and family and community.

Alabama improved in 11 of the 16 indicators including children without health insurance, children in single-parent families, teens not in school and not working, eighth graders not proficient in math and high school students not graduating on time.

Alabama remained the same in three areas — child and teen deaths per 100,000, children living in high-poverty areas and fourth graders not proficient in reading. The state slipped in two indicators — low birth-weight babies; and young children, those ages 3 and 4, not in school.

Decatur City Schools Superintendent Michael Douglas believes that for a good school system, “you’re going to address all of the needs of all your students."

“Holistically, we provide all the programs necessary so that a kid can be not just college-ready but also career-ready,” Douglas said. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure they’re proficient in reading by third grade, which is required by law, but beyond that, we will provide our students a pathway to be successful, and that may or may not be college.

“And I would say that’s also happening statewide.”

For preschool-aged children, the school district also provides pre-kindergarten services, which Douglas called “the great equalizer.”

“Consistently, we’ve seen kids that attend our pre-K or really any pre-K come to school better prepared and start off ahead rather than behind,” he said.

The Decatur system has pre-K classrooms at 10 elementary schools, said supervisor of federal programs Melissa Scott. DCS pre-K can accommodate 270 total students, with 18 students per classroom. 

Watkins believes the COVID-19 outbreak and its disruptions with school and normal schedules have had “a major impact” on children, mentally and academically. Over the summer, however, he said he's seen progress.

“There’s a light again at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

The Summer Youth Employment Program for ages 14 and 15 that’s organized through DYS supported 150 participants this year, said coordinator Kesia Benford. Students get interview and other soft skills training, on-the-job experience with various businesses, schools or camps, and earn a $400 stipend at the end of the program, which runs through today.

“It teaches them work ethic and leadership,” Benford said. “For many of them, it’s their first work experience.”

“Every child regresses a little bit over the summer break,” said Douglas, who hopes that the district's Summer Learning Academy and regular summer school limited the "summer slide." 

The Alabama Literacy Act requires schools to offer summer programs to K-3 students with reading deficiencies, and the cost of the Summer Learning Academy programs and summer school, including transportation, meals and teacher salaries, was paid for with federal COVID-19 relief funds.

“Once school starts (Aug. 5), we’re making sure our extended-day programs are instructional based,” Douglas said. “We’re going to staff those with teachers when possible.”

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