By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Sonny Tuiteleleapaga figures out a puzzle at the
Head Start program at Dole Intermediate in May '96..

Hawaii kids
better off

Hawaii's national ranking
in youth living conditions is up a notch
to 10th, but the results
are mixed

By Helen Altonn

Hawaii's kids are better off than those of most other states, a national study indicates.

The state's overall ranking rose a notch — from 11th last year to 10th in the 1997 Kids Count Data Book, noted Marcia Hartsock of the University of Hawaii Center on the Family.

Hawaii improved in five areas in the state-by-state survey of conditions for children across America. But the report, released today, also points to some critical problems here.

The welfare of Hawaii's children worsened in four areas monitored from 1985 to 1994: low birth-weight babies, teen births, juvenile violent crime arrests and percentage of single-parent families.

Hawaii's children also fared poorly in a special Kids Count look this year at education.

Fifty-four percent of fourth-graders scored below basic reading level in 1994 and 47 percent fell below the basic math level in 1996.

Hartsock, project coordinator in Hawaii for Kids Count, said Hawaii ranks 11th in the nation in nursery school enrollment and has the 10th lowest percentage of children with parents who are high school dropouts.

Winston Sakurai, a member of the state Board of Education and the Kids Count education committee, said the figures were more of a disappointment than a surprise. "We're not moving upwards in basic reading or mathematics."

It's puzzling because Hawaii ranks well above the national average in kindergarten enrollment and keeping students in school, he said.

"There might be something going on before they even reach us, or maybe there are not enough enrolled in early childhood education," Sakurai said. "These are things we need to look at."

He said the board will be looking at standardized testing in the fourth grade, advocated by President Clinton. "Some federal monies are available. Hopefully, we could be one of the pilot states looking at the standards the president wants."

Teen birth rate way up

In the other areas, Hartsock said, the worst statistic was the teen birth rate, which increased here and nationally. Hawaii ranked 23rd among states with a 39 percent increase in births per 1,000 teens, ages 15 to 17.

A 39 percent jump also occurred in violent crime arrests per 100,000 youths, ages 10 to 17. Arrests went from 189 in 1985 to 263 in 1994. But Hawaii ranked 12th in the nation in this area because other states had bigger increases in arrests of kids for violent crimes.

Low birth-weight babies also increased during the survey period, but Hartsock said, "That isn't so important here because so many Asian women have low birth-weight children."

Hawaii ranked seventh in the nation in the percentage of single-parent families, creeping up from 21 percent to 22 percent in the study period.

Improvements were made in infant and child mortality rates, the rate of teen deaths by accident, homicide and suicide, the percentage of teens not attending school and not working and the percent of children in poverty.

Neighbor isles need help

Focusing on teen suicides in a worksheet, however, Kids Count lists Hawaii with the highest rate in the nation with 14 cases in 1994 or 45.2 of 100,000 deaths.

But Sachi Taketa, school health branch chief, cautioned that while the figure proportionately is high, the teen population here is very low. "If you do it by teen population, we are ranked much lower."

She said a 1995 youth risk behavior report of ninth- to 12th-graders statewide showed 20.3 percent made a plan for suicide and 12.7 percent attempted suicide.

"Based on school health data in 1995-96, we were not aware of any completed suicides," she said. "In 1994-95, we were aware of seven completed."

Loretta Fuddy, chief of the state Health Department's Maternal & Child Health Branch and Hawaii Kids County committee member, said progress is being made on health issues across the state "but within communities, you see real disparity.

"Major improvements are on Oahu where there is a larger amount of resource, but we're slipping on the neighbor islands where resources are limited and there is an increase in unemployment and poverty."

Teen births are a great concern, she said, noting they tend to be linked with low birth-weights and infant deaths.

Drug use not addressed

More attention also must be given to increased substance abuse, which Kids Count didn't cover, she said. "We're seeing in our programs and hearing across the state about an increase in that area." Hawaii also has a larger percentage of women who smoke than the rest of the nation, Fuddy said.

Taketa said her branch is working with community teams on "strategies for adolescent wellness."

"Why should they fear life is so hopeless they want to kill themselves? This is the challenge we in Hawaii have. Why are any of our youths involved in any of these risk behaviors, whether violence or sex issues?

"It's not just one category of risk factors," she said. "It's all related. It's the bigger issue of poverty, what's happening with our economy, kids not engaging in school. They need support systems, with caring adults and good after-school programs."

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