Making school choice easier (copy)

A teacher wants her students to feel at home in their new classroom at the James Simons Elementary School on King Street in 2013.

Katlynn is an 8-year-old second-grader from a small, rural town in Orangeburg County, where many children do not meet basic reading level expectations. Katlynn also once struggled with reading, falling well below her classmates in kindergarten and part of first grade. When she tried to read at home, Katlynn used to give up, asking her mom, Terri, to read to her instead.

But with the help of Save the Children’s in-school literacy program, which boosts literacy growth through guided independent reading practice, comprehension-building book talks and reading quizzes, Katlynn is now reading at grade level.

“She’s come a long way,” Terri said. “She made the honor roll last year.”

Terri’s other children have been in Save the Children’s early childhood programs for nearly a decade. It is a rare family resource in their town, which grapples with high poverty and unemployment, and the experience has inspired Terri to get her accounting degree.

Katlynn and her family are fortunate. Unlike many others living in rural poverty, she had access to high-quality educational programs to help her catch up to her classmates. Across the country, many kids have vastly different experiences as they grow up.

Nearly 1 in 4 children in rural America grow up in poverty, a higher rate than their urban peers. These kids are more likely to experience factors such as higher infant mortality rates, higher teen pregnancy rates, lack of essential educational resources and poor access to health care. They often miss out on nutritious meals, too. South Carolina has the greatest absolute gap in child poverty rates, where nearly 15 percentage points separate children growing up in cities versus rural pockets, meaning kids growing up in rural areas are at a significant disadvantage.

The impact of these experiences unfold for these children’s entire lives. Research has linked child poverty in rural areas to low levels of well-being during both childhood and adulthood, encompassing poor educational, economic, behavioral and health outcomes.

In order to shine a light on this injustice, Save the Children has released its second annual End of Childhood Report, which examines some of the reasons why children around the world — and here in South Carolina — are missing out on the childhoods they deserve.

According to Save the Children’s U.S. Complement, Growing Up Rural in America, South Carolina ranked as the 41st best state for children based on Save the Children’s five “childhood-ender” events: infant mortality, food insecurity, high school dropout rates, child homicide and suicide, and early pregnancy. South Carolina has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the U.S.; more than 400 babies died before their first birthday in 2016.

Save the Children has been implementing evidence-based education programs in South Carolina since 2003 and partners with 15 schools in five counties to deliver programs to more than 5,500 kids. During the 2015-16 school year, children in Save the Children’s literacy programs read an average of 45 books during the school year, and more than 68 percent of participants showed significant reading improvement. This is important progress, but more children — and our state as a whole — stand to benefit from programs such as these.

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A report from Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago economist James Heckman shows the rate of return on investments in early childhood development for many children can be 13 percent per child, per year due to improved outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime.

Despite Save the Children’s partnership with communities and different sectors, and the state Department of Education’s efforts to take over under-performing districts in recent months in order to improve them, there is more work to do. We urge lawmakers in South Carolina and across the country to invest in early childhood education programs such as child care, home visiting and pre-K, which help give children living in poverty a strong start in life.

Every student has enormous potential and deserves the opportunity to be successful. Let’s give all kids like Katlynn the chance to thrive.

Mark Shriver is senior vice president of U.S. Programs & Advocacy at Save the Children. Molly Spearman is South Carolina’s superintendent of education.