Business is very good for Mike Matwick.
The executive director of six alternative high schools has had a waiting list of at-risk kids since he opened the first school in Mesa in 1995.
Business also is booming at Banner Desert Medical Center, where more babies are born than any hospital in the state.
A new survey of child wellbeing shows that both trends are likely to continue.
According to the 2005 Kids Count Data Book released today, Arizona has the highest percentage of high school dropouts in the nation and among the lowest rate of infant mortality and low birthweight babies.
In between birth and dropping out, however, many parents struggle mightily to raise their kids.
"Most parents out there want to do well with their kids," said Ric Borom, a former school resource officer at Gilbert high schools and now principal at two of Matwick’s Pinnacle Charter schools. "They just don’t know how to set the limits.
"They often do the best they can. That doesn’t mean it’s all that can be done."
Over the years, Arizona has improved in helping babies start out well, which saves money and improves the chances that the child will grow into a healthy adult.
Babies considered low birth weight, starting life at less than 5.5 pounds, are at greater risk of developing health and learning problems. Even after they grow up, they are more likely to develop high blood pressure and heart disease, said Dr. Alissa Craft, a neonatologist with Phoenix Perinatal Associates who practices at Banner Desert.
"We’re looking at a 14-week hospital stay for some of these children, with bills that will rack up at over a quartermillion dollars," Craft said. "The costs associated with doing long-term follow-up care for all those babies is huge."
Harder to calculate are the costs of high school dropouts. Other indicators in the study, which uses 2002 and 2003 data, show more Arizona kids may be headed for trouble.
Twenty-three percent of fourth-graders were not proficient in reading or math in 2003, compared with 30 percent nationally. Children who aren’t reading well by fourth grade are at greater risk of dropping out.
Twenty-two percent of Arizona children live with grownups who did not finish high school, compared to the U.S. rate of 17 percent. Parents’ educational attainment is linked to their family’s stability and financial security, and is a key factor in how far children will go in school.
Eighteen percent live in households headed by people not proficient in English, compared to 12 percent nationally.
"Limited English presents a huge challenge for school success," said Carol Kamin, president of Children’s Action Alliance. "We don’t need to develop a new program. We need more of what we have."
Arizona is under federal court order to improve education for children who don’t speak English as their first language. Gov. Janet Napolitano and legislators are dickering over a plan to avoid federal sanctions.
Overall, Arizona’s ranking improved to 41st from 45th, and the state made progress in seven of the 10 indicators. Still, it ranks in the bottom 10 in six areas.
The teen birth rate has declined remarkably in Arizona and nationwide, but the state still stood 47th among the 50 states, with females 15-to 19-year-olds having 61 of every 1,000 babies born in 2002, compared with the U.S. rate of 43 teen births per 1,000 babies.
The biggest improvement came with the dropout rate. Twelve percent of 16- to 19-year-olds had no diplomas and were not enrolled in school in 2003, compared with 18 percent in 2002. The U.S. rate is 8 percent.
Arizona bucked national trends in infant mortality and birth weight. The percentage of low birth-weight babies increased in 41 states, but Arizona was one of four states to show improvement. For the first time since 1958, the U.S. infant mortality rate edged up slightly.
"All the research is showing us that the ones that end up falling off in fourth grade, it’s because they didn’t start out that well," said Jeanette Shea-Ramirez, chief of women and children’s health for the state Department of Health Services. "If you want to impact that, you have to impact that as soon as possible."
Educators and child advocates say that means providing early childhood education, and involving parents. They call for expanding quality preschool and full-day kindergarten to include more children, broadening tutoring and mentoring programs for children at risk of failing, and shrinking class sizes so teachers can give more one-on-one attention to students.
In addition to the federal Head Start preschool program, Arizona provides about $10 million in state money for preschool for 4,000 of the state’s poorest children.
Legislators have agreed to spend an additional $17 million next year to expand full-day kindergarten to more schools statewide, while voters in the Scottsdale Unified School District agreed to raise taxes to provide all-day kindergarten in every school this fall.
Preschool teacher and parent educator Venus Leopold said teachers and parents need training on early brain development. Parents who take her classes through the Mesa Unified School District’s Parent University are routinely amazed to learn why their children are behaving in certain ways, and relieved to know they aren’t the only ones struggling.
"Many times parents force their kids to do things that they’re not ready to do," she said. "And they forget how important it is to play. How important it is to talk to your child, to read to your child. Language is the number one indicator of how well your child is going to do in school."
Involving parents in their child’s education is a challenge at both the preschool and the high school level, Leopold and Matwick said. But parents are the key to their child’s success.
"I don’t know that any school has a program or curriculum that can address (the dropout rate)," Matwick said. "It’s what the students bring to the door and where they go when they leave.
"No matter how hard you work sometimes, their lives reach down and snatch them away from you."