Following years of alarming statistics, we finally have a little bit of good news to report when it comes to the well being of West Virginia’s youth.

According to the 2006 National Kids Count Data Book, West Virginia now ranks 38th among all states when it comes to the well being of children. Why is the 38th ranking important? It’s significant because the Mountain State improved 9 percentage points in the national rankings from 47th in 2005, marking the biggest improvement of any state in the country, although it tied with Pennsylvania.

It’s no secret that southern West Virginia, and local counties such as Mercer and McDowell in particular, have recorded troubling statistics in past Kids Count studies. In fact, reporting on the prior findings was often somewhat of a dismal assignment. That’s because the media normally gets the report before local health care officials do. As a result, I — and other writers - were often charged with sharing the troubling statistics first with local officials in McDowell and Mercer counties.

That’s why the improved statistics in the 2006 study are welcome. However, there is no question there is still much work to be done in the Mountain State — and southern West Virginia in particular — when it comes to improving the well being of our youth. While an improvement, the 38th ranking is certainly nothing to celebrate.

It should instead serve as a wake-up call to local officials charged with protecting the well being of area youth — the key to West Virginia’s future.

The focus of the 2006 Kids Count study was the early childhood experiences of children under age 6 who are in family-based childcare, according to a news release from the West Virginia Kids Count Fund. Family-based care is defined as child-care offered in a home-based setting outside of a child’s own home, by both regulated and unregulated providers, according to the news release. The Mountain State reported 33,000 children under age 6 in 2003 who were in family-based care. The 2006 study suggests that family-based care providers once again represent a large segment of childcare providers.

According to the 2006 report, West Virginia improved in eight out of 10 measures of child well-being since 2000.

For example, the report says West Virginia’s dropout rate last year was 10 percent, but this year the measure showed significant improvement, falling to 7 percent, or 1 percentage point below the national average, according to the report. In terms of the national rating, West Virginia’s drop-out rate improved from 39th in last year’s report to 20th this year.

However, as long as youngsters are dropping out of high school, particularly in school systems across southern West Virginia, the recorded percentage improvement simply isn’t anything to commemorate.

Local school and health care officials must endeavor to ensure that every child in West Virginia earns a high-school diploma, as well as the opportunity to pursue a higher education.

West Virginia also did well in another key indicator, according to the report. The state ranked 20th in the nation, or 29 percent in terms of the number of children in single-parent families. The national ranking is 31 percent.

In the bad news category, two indicators of the well-being of children have gotten worse since 2000, according to the report. They include the percentage of low-birth weight babies and the teen death rate. The number of low-birth babies increased by 4 percent since 2000, and the teen death rate increased by 2 percent. Again, these are alarming and unacceptable statistics, and should represent a call to action for local officials.

Another key area of concern is the number of West Virginia children living in poverty. Although the state’s ranking has improved 8 percentage points since 2000, 24 percent of the state’s children are still poor, according to the news release. As a result, West Virginia now ranks 45th in the nation when it comes to the alarming trend of child poverty.

Although we can celebrate the improved statistics for West Virginia, and the better numbers are certainly welcome, it is obvious there is still much work to be done to improve the well being of youth in the Mountain State, and particularly in southern West Virginia.

When there are still children living in poverty in the region, and when there is still a high number of students who are dropping out of high school, the findings of the 2006 Kids Count study shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a success. It is instead another call to action to address these key areas of concern when it comes to the future well being of the region’s youth.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s city editor. Contact him at

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