How are our children and families doing? Study takes our vital signs

For seven years now, the Charlottesville/Albemarle Commission on Children and Families (CCF) has been issuing Stepping Stones, a statistical study on the well-being of children and families in the area. Using data collected from police records, the school system, social services organizations, the courts, and other sources, the 60-page study identifies trends in targeted areas such as bus ridership, teen pregnancy, academic achievement, crime, literacy, drug use, school discipline, and family characteristics.

"It’s a kind of report card," says CCF director Gretchen Ellis, "where we take the vital signs of the community over a period of time."

So did we get an A?

"Basically, it's good news," says Ellis. "Academic achievement is up, voter registration is up, teen pregnancies are down, and more kids are entering kindergarten ready to read."

Still, Ellis admits other trends are troubling. For example, the number of children living in poverty has gone up in both the City and the County, and per capita income in the area has risen a mere $1,200 since 1993 when adjusted for inflation.

Other stats point out the obvious. More people are riding the bus –from 6.7 rides per person in 2000 to 11.4 rides per person in 2005. Families are leaving the City –since 1990, the number of families living in the County has increased by 3,967, while the number living in the City has decreased by 777.

Some stats only seem to raise questions. For example, why did school suspensions in the City increase to 359 (per thousand) in 2005, while suspensions decreased in the county to 122? Why are alcohol-related arrests of teenagers so much higher in the County than in the City? Why is violent crime among teenagers higher in the City than the County? Why are teen pregnancies so much higher in the City than the County? And why has enrollment in fine arts classes gone down?

Ellis says the report is not meant to supply definitive answers, but rather to provoke discussion and serve as an advocacy tool.

"For example," she says, "two years ago the study revealed a sharp decrease in the number of pregnant women in their first trimester seeking medical attention. Several groups spearheaded an effort to change that. Now those numbers are up. And in the current study, the fact that the number of non-English speaking students in our schools has been steadily increasing might spark an interest in changing the curriculum."

But what about the stats that raise questions? How are we to read the statistical tea leaves?

"Well, perhaps it’s something an investigative reporter could look into," says Ellis.