The ranking for the overall well-being of children in Cape Girardeau County dropped from 16th best to 41st among 114 counties in Missouri and the city of St. Louis, according to Kids Count in Missouri, an annual study performed by the watchdog group Citizens for Missouri's Children.
The county is showing undesirable trends in five of the study's 10 categories, including births to mothers without high school diplomas, low birth-weight infants, which means less than 5.5 pounds, and infant mortality. Other negative trends, compared to a base year in 1996, were in child abuse and neglect and a higher number of students enrolled in free or reduced lunch, which indicates poverty.
The 10 categories decide where counties rank in relation to the rest of the state.
Ruth Ehresman, a policy director for Citizens for Missouri's Children, said it is not unusual for fluctuation in ranking. Cape Girardeau County had finished in the top 16 since 1998.
"For counties that fall more in the middle, there can be quite a bit of variation," Ehresman said. "We tell people to interpret ranks with caution. Even with the drop from 16 to 41, Cape Girardeau still compares favorably."
'An important tool'
Still, the Kids Count 2001 study, being released today, is one way for counties to assess problem areas.
"It should not be the sole way, but it is an important tool," Ehresman said. "These are quantifiable events, things we can easily document. But there also is a role for anecdotal evidence. You always have to look at the specific realities in a given county or city or school district."
The study also shows that Cape Girardeau County is improving in annual high school dropouts, births to teen-agers, deaths of children ages 1-14 and violent deaths to teen-agers.
Charlotte Craig, the director of the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center, said the three downward trends concerning birth could be directly related.
"The moms who drop out of school tend to go with the low birth weight," Craig said. "The best way to prevent low birth weight is prenatal care, and high school dropouts are less likely to have a comprehension of what's good for them and what babies are lacking. It's an assumption, but they all do interrelate."
But sometimes the factors aren't related.
Central High School graduate Jessica Woodall, 20, of Cape Girardeau recently gave birth to a 4-pound, 13-ounce daughter on Dec. 29.
"I didn't smoke, my weight was fine and I had prenatal care," Woodall said. "It was just something that happened."
Woodall said she thought Cape Girardeau would be a fine place to raise a child, even though she's considering leaving her hometown for Alabama, her fiancé's home state.
"Cape's OK, I guess," she said. "I've been here all my life, and I guess I turned out OK."
No trend noticed
Cape Girardeau public schools superintendent Dr. Dan Steska and Jackson superintendent Dr. Ron Anderson both said they haven't noticed a sizable trend of pregnant teen-agers dropping out.
Both schools have counseling available, but neither offer specific programs designed for pregnant teens to continue their education. Often, pregnant students attend alternative school.
"We are interested in expanding some parent-teacher programs that would deal with those situations," Anderson said. "We feel that when those issues do happen, those people certainly need all the help they can get."
Another area of concern with the county's education system was the increased number of students receiving reduced or free lunch.
The number increased from 24.2 percent to 27.7 percent.
"Usually, the higher number of students on free or reduced lunches is one indicator of having potential dropouts," Steska said. "There's a nationwide correlation. The higher level of poverty, the more negative impact it has on the level of success. We have noticed a slight change in that."
Bollinger County ranked 91st in the Kids Count study, 17 spots higher than last year, but is improving in just four of the 10 categories.
Perry County, which ranked sixth in 1999 and 44th last year, fell to 67th and is changing for the worse in seven categories.
Scott County was 73rd, 10 spots off last year and is showing improvement in five categories.
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