The earliest years of a child's life are unquestionably critical to their future. Decades of child development research shows that the most crucial brain development occurs in the first five years.
In Brown County, a coalition promoting the importance of the first five years of a child's life - Start Smart of Brown County/The Early Childhood Council - shared its 2012 report last week. The report is created every two years to share the most recent statistics on the health of our county's children, highlight gaps in resources and encourage the community to collaborate to raise healthy and successful children.
The data is not surprising to those in the field, but it is discouraging. From abuse and neglect numbers to childhood obesity and mental health rates, there are concerning trends. Thirty-five percent of children enrolled in Green Bay Head Start are overweight or obese. More than 31 percent of Green Bay Head Start children ages 3-4 had tooth decay upon entering school. It was projected that the number of child abuse and neglect reports in 2012 would surpass 5,000, about a 35 percent increase over 2011.
And the numbers all point to a common denominator: poverty. In Brown County, the poverty rate was estimated at 11 percent in 2011, compared with 6.9 percent in 2000. Between 2000 and 2012, the percentage of Brown County public school children receiving free or reduced-price lunches rose from 27 to 41 percent.
Low-income parents face inherent challenges to supporting a child's growth. And although the average Brown County resident may not feel empowered to change that factor, they are able to help address it. A gap in income levels may create a gap in the time and emotional support a parent can provide a child. But the community can invest in its children to fill that gap.
Already, Head Start and Early Head Start give many children the tools to succeed among their more advantaged peers. Children need continued support throughout each life stage, into adulthood. The challenges bearing down on youngsters can prohibit growth, and each life stage brings new challenges and offers new choices. Without the right influence, the right resources, children have too many opportunities to take the wrong path.
Last week, advocates came together to assess the state of Brown County's children. Many of the people who met for breakfast Monday morning have taken part in assembling the statistics and are executing numerous initiatives already under way in our community.
But it will take more than the people in that room Monday to address the risk factors facing our children and promote the positive influences. The community must rally around the programs already in existence and tap its own skills, commitment and energy to close remaining gaps. The tools are there, the need is evident, and the result will be critical.