Paterson Alliance Hopes to Advance Quality of Life in Paterson
Life getting better for Paterson's poorest kids
PATERSON — Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, remembers when her organization presented the results of the first Paterson Kids Count in 2011.
"It was not a pretty picture," she said.
The report, a statistical profile of children in the city, showed the sobering effects of the pervasive poverty in Paterson on academic and health outcomes. But four years later, there have been some victories.
Advocates for Children of New Jersey presented the second edition of Paterson Kids Count [pdf] on Thursday, and while many of the issues identified four years ago persist, the report showed gains in the number of children receiving free school breakfasts, getting access to health care and passing state literacy tests. Zalkind credited the Paterson Alliance, a coalition of city non-profit agencies, with focusing on the three measures.
The federal government is giving Paterson schools $2.5 million to expand a program to provide medical and social services to students and their families within school buildings.
"You took small bites at issues that had a possibility of being successful, and ultimately will impact on those bigger issues," Zalkind said to a crowd of advocates, educators and parents at the Brownstone.
The participation rate in Paterson's school breakfast program is now 93 percent, tops among large, urban districts in New Jersey, according to the report. In 2011, city schools were feeding only 27 percent of the 21,000 children who qualified for free or reduced-cost meals.
There were 4,000 uninsured children in Paterson in 2010. That figure has since dropped to 1,800. The report credits Paterson Alliance members who held enrollment drives and publicized the availability of coverage and asked community organizations to enroll clients in NJ Family Care. The numbers also got a boost in 2013, when Gov. Chris Christie opted the state into the federal Medicaid expansion.
City students were in a huge hole in 2010, with only 31 percent of city third graders passing state literacy tests. The numbers aren't much better, but they have improved, up to 37 percent in 2014. Charter schools have shown an even larger improvement, with passing rates up 25 percent to 55 percent over the same period.
These improvements are worth celebrating, Zalkind said, but Paterson has plenty of issues to focus on going forward:
- 41 percent of Paterson children live in poverty, a figure that likely undercounts the number of struggling city families, since the federal poverty level doesn't account for the higher cost of living in New Jersey, Zalkind said.
- The number of children receiving food stamps is up 16 percent from 2010 to 2014.
- There were 246 children admitted to the hospital for asthma in 2013, up 24 percent from 2010.
- The number of children who were victims of proven child abuse or neglect rose 19 percent from 2009 to 2013.
- Athough Paterson has full-date, state-funded preschool, only 72 percent of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds attend.
Moving forward, the Paterson Alliance is focusing on the latter point. The organization commissioned consultant Nina Sazer O'Donnell to create a plan to boost pre-K enrollment.
"We all have one goal, and that is to make sure that our children are successful."
O'Donnell's study found that many working families have trouble fitting pre-K programs into their scheduled because they only run six hours a day. Many can't afford to pay for child care before and after these programs.
In addition, many parents who don't speak English, particularly those who speak Bengali and Arabic, are unaware they have access to free pre-K. O'Donnell recommends starting Pre-K programs in targeted neighborhoods and increasing outreach to Paterson's various immigrant groups to boost enrollment.
Leah Dade, executive director of the Paterson Alliance, said the group would meet soon to set more goals based on the 2015 data.
"We all have one goal, and that is to make sure that our children are successful," she said.