In our inevitable focus on immediate and day-to-day issues, problems and crises, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture and the impact of long-term trends. Once again, the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands has performed an invaluable service by focusing us on the big picture in its report on the status of children in the territory ("Our Children Now! Where Is Our Commitment?").
The picture that the foundation data paints is a mixed one. Of 13 key indicators, five improved between 1995 and 2000, while eight were deemed "variable" or became worse. For example, infant mortality fell by almost 40 percent, while poverty among Virgin Islands children increased by 17 percent — during the greatest economic boom in recent American history.
In many ways, "Our Children Now!" chronicles the impact of the economic and social decline of the Virgin Islands in the last two decades. For example, a child who by accident of birth either is living on St. Croix or was born into a female-headed household has more than a 50 percent chance of living in poverty. The report is full of pictures of children of the Virgin Islands, pictures of bright, happy, hopeful faces. But we know that many of these kids are being shortchanged, and also that many of them are not going to reach their potential.
The report also contains descriptions of award-winning agencies that are serving the territory's children. We're familiar with the profile of these agencies: dedicated and skilled staffs, limited resources, and the capacity to reach only a small portion of the young people who need their services.
In addition, we know that kids living in poverty can succeed and grow up to have rich and productive lives. Why this happens is a mix of good luck, strong will, and systems of support that help overcome the many real barriers that poverty imposes. We know that education is critical, that schools can make a difference with even the poorest youngsters, that the schools in the Virgin Islands are a mess, and that "reforming" them will take years, even if one assumes that they are going to be reformed.
For the smiling kids on the cover of "Our Children Now!", five years is a lifetime. So, what can be done in a relatively short time without a massive overhaul of the educational system, and without an infusion of large amounts of new resources — resources unlikely to materialize as "leave no child behind" becomes a cliché as empty as "the children are our future"?
Here is a suggestion for concrete action that does not require large-scale system reform or vast amounts of money:
Recent studies indicate that, to a significant degree, poor children fall behind in school because of a "summer gap." While middle- and upper-class kids continue to be exposed to learning and education during the summer, poor kids typically are not. Year by year, the summer deficit becomes cumulative. In addition, we know that after-school education makes a huge difference in both learning and social development for these same young people.
The danger in a report such as "Our Children Now!" is that the problems appear to be so daunting that they reinforce an already-present pessimism relative to change and improvement. This pessimism, while understandable, is unwarranted. A significant after-school and summer support structure could be built largely using the existing not-for-profit infrastructure along with a reasonable and achievable infusion of dollars.
Some new agencies could be developed and supported. The keys would appear to be putting in place a clear plan and identifying funding sources that will see the enormous potential impact that can be had by supporting the development of an after-school sector that reaches a large portion of the territory's children on a year-round basis.
This would appear to be one of those situations in which an investment of a modest amount of money could change the lives of large numbers of children. It is generally estimated that you can run excellent after-school programs for young people for about $1,000 per year per child. Thus, for less than $20 million per year, the educational landscape of the Virgin Islands could be transformed in ways school "reform" efforts will be incapable of doing for many years to come, if ever.
If this sounds expensive, it is not, given the potential payoffs. For something more convincing than analyses and data that support the efficacy of this approach, pick up a copy of "Our Children Now!" Dont even bother reading it. Just look at the kids on the cover. Theyre worth the investment.
Editor's note: Management consultant Frank Schneiger has worked with V.I. agencies since 1975, most recently as consultant to United Way of St. Thomas/St. John. He was one of the founders of the St. Thomas/St. John Youth Multiservice Center.
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