It really does take a village to raise a child.

Even in Columbus, where multiple organizations focus on the health and well-being of local children, some children still struggle in school, live in poverty and abuse drugs.

That’s why community leaders, especially those who regularly work with children, gathered together last week for a special workshop dedicated to developing ideas for improving the lives of kids in Columbus.

Local children’s advocates got a chance to voice their concerns about kids’ health and offer ideas for improvement during the all-day Put Children First symposium, sponsored Oct. 13 by Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, United Way of Bartholomew County, Foundation For Youth and the Community Education Coalition.

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The four organizations, whose leaders also lead the local Council for Youth Development, researched and distributed data on the state of local children, which focused on three key areas: education, safety and security and health.

The data initially was released as part of the council’s report to the Heritage Fund in 2014.

“It’s been more than a year of really trying to work through and constructively respond to this with a collective impact,” said Tracy Souza, president and CEO of the Heritage Fund. “We want to make sure everyone is focused on the priorities and the best ways to take all of the great people and the resources and move those big needles.”

Day of discovery

About 150 community leaders came together for a morning information session, where Merita Irby, executive vice president of The Forum for Youth Investment, gave an overview of the current condition of local children based on the three data areas.

About 90 leaders, each with a vested interest in the lives of children, then came together for an all-day workshop to work through the data, discuss the city’s strengths and weaknesses and begin formulating a plan for future developments.

Planners wanted the highest notion of coordination of organizations that serve children, said Mark Stewart, United Way of Bartholomew County president.

Among the three focus areas, the education data was the most positive.

From 2008 to 2014, the Bartholomew County high school graduation rate improved from 82.2 percent to 89.6 percent, which was just slightly below the statewide 2014 graduation rate of 89.8 percent.

At the other end of the age spectrum, kindergarten readiness has increased to 74 percent, up from 73 percent in the 2012-13 school year, and 75.8 percent of third- and eighth-grade students passed the math and English/language arts ISTEP tests during the 2013-14 school year, compared with 74.9 percent the previous year.

However, the education data becomes more troubling after high school, where fewer than half of all local students choose to pursue higher education.

Workforce training

In 2013, only 42.9 percent of Bartholomew County residents between the ages of 25 and 34 chose to get the degrees or certifications needed to get a job, a drop from 43.4 percent the prior year.

About 500 jobs locally are unfilled because potential employees do not have the education or skills required by the company, including basic communication and problem-solving skills, Irby said.

In the next five years, the Lumina Foundation predicts, about 60 percent of jobs will require some form of additional education. However, the county’s workforce may not be on track to meet that demand, said Kathy Oren, executive director of the Community Education Coalition.

Oren pointed to the iGrad program, which provides mentors to help eighth- through 12th-grade students who are struggling in school, as a first step toward raising the overall high school graduation rate, which inherently increases the postsecondary attainment rate.

However, with Indiana ranked in the bottom 10 states for higher education and the countywide postsecondary attainment rate staying mostly flat, Oren said earlier intervention will likely be the key to putting local students on the path to education and employment.

“We have a long way to go,” Oren said. “That makes us less attractive for businesses to want to come here.”

Early intervention means more than help in the classroom, which is why participants also discussed ways to ensure students receive the support they need at home.

At-risk children

At least 333 children were homeless in Bartholomew County in 2013, including those who lived in a shelter or a hotel. However, that number is likely higher due to the unknown number of children who live completely without shelter.

Similarly, 20 percent of local youths are living with food insecurity, while 34.3 percent receive free lunches from local schools.

The biggest contributing factor to homelessness and food insecurity is unemployment, which is why participants spent much of their time discussing ways to enable parents to find and keep good-paying jobs.

“Transportation is something that was identified by a couple of different groups,” said Chuck Kime, Foundation for Youth executive director. “If it were better, it would be easier for needy families to get to employment opportunities.”

In addition to limited access to food and shelter, children living in poverty are less likely to have access to the health care they need. In 2012, 8.3 percent of residents under the age of 19 were uninsured, which means they could be denied access to some medical care depending on their financial situations.

Similarly, teen pregnancies in the county have been on the rise in recent years, and limited health care could lead to prenatal complications or an increased risk for miscarriages.

Mental health was also an area of concern, Stewart said, especially in regard to juvenile drug and alcohol addictions.

The local data indicated that 26 high school seniors reported abusing drugs or alcohol one to five times in 2013, while three sixth-graders said they had done the same.

Addictions are usually treated as mental health issues, which is why Stewart said his group discussed the need for more focus on mental health rehabilitation in the county.

“It was definitely an area of concern,” he said.

What’s next

After the workshop, Irby took the various concerns and suggestions and is compiling them into a summary report, which will be released in the next few weeks.

From that report, the Council for Youth Development, which Kime will lead, will begin to formulate a plan for collaboration among children’s groups in Columbus.

In the meantime, Irby encouraged local leaders to engage with youth and help them form connections in the community. When young people feel connected, she said, they are more likely to make good decisions and stay on a path toward a successful future.

She also encouraged leaders to pay attention to all children, not just the ones at the extreme ends of the spectrum of success.

While 40 percent of local youth are doing well and 20 percent or not, it is the 40 percent in the middle who will help the county swing the pendulum either away from or toward a better environment for local children, Irby said.

“If we’re not there for all of them, then we’re not where we want to be,” she said.

5 steps to effective collaboration

Here are five steps that local organizations can follow when establishing a collaborative plan to improve the lives of local children.

  • Common agenda: Understanding of goals.
  • Shared measurement: Deciding which areas to target and how to measure improvements.
  • Mutually reinforcing activities: Formulating plans and carrying them out.
  • Effective communication: Ensuring all parties understand what progress has been made and what still needs to be done.
  • Infrastructure: Staffing and supporting the work.

Source: Merita Irby, The Forum for Youth Investment

By the numbers

Bright spots

  • Kindergarten readiness: up to 74 percent (2014)
  • Passing ISTEP: up to 75.8 percent (2014)
  • High school graduation: up to 89.6 percent (2014)
  • Students needing reduced lunch prices: down to 7.8 percent (2013)
  • Overall homelessness: down to 333 children (2014)
  • Substantiated sexual abuse cases: down to 27 (2013)
  • Uninsured under the age of 19: down to 8.3 percent (2012)

Trouble spots

  • Postsecondary attainment: down to 42.9 percent (2013)
  • Students receiving free lunches: up to 34.3 percent (2013)
  • Food insecurity: 20 percent
  • Number of children in need of services: up to 167 (2013)
  • Substantiated neglect cases: up to 145 (2013)
  • Substantiated physical abuse cases: up to 11 (2013)
  • Teen pregnancy: up to 127 (2013)
  • Drug and alcohol abuse: Abuse increasing with students’ age (2013)
Author photo
Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.