BOONEVILLE, Ky. — Pull up to Owsley County Elementary with its attractive new building and elaborate playground, and you might think you're in Affluent Suburb, USA. Not even close. Here in the heart of Appalachia, the median family income was just over $17,500 in 2005. This school, with the help of Save the Children, is trying to change that — doing its best to pull these kids out of poverty.
In his address before Congress last week, President Obama talked about America's high-school dropout rate as a "prescription for economic decline" and pledged to "ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education — from the day they are born to the day they begin a career." It's a tall order, to put it mildly, especially in poverty pockets like Owsley County, but here programs are already in place aimed at achieving that ambitious goal.
Vetta, a friendly young woman from the area — well-known to the folks who live on these hills and in these hollers — was hired by the school district last fall to implement a program created and funded by Save the Children (Cokie is a trustee) to work with new mothers in their homes.
Those home visits provide a sense of how great the challenge of providing anything like an equal education for these kids will be. A pockmarked gravel road leads to the soda-can-strewn driveway of the patched-together house where 4-month-old McKenzie lives with her teenage mother and aunt, her grandparents, a dog and three puppies. No one has a job. The house is piled high with clothes and dishes and trash, making the kitchen completely impassable. The baby's bassinet is crammed into the living room in front of a tippy coal-burning heater. When it comes time to crawl, there's no place for her to move.
But McKenzie's pretty young mother dotes on her and is willing to listen to Vetta when it comes to doing what's right for her bright-eyed baby. She breast-feeds her, stays current with her shots, talks to her, sings to her and, most important, reads to her. And she's building a room onto the house where the baby should be able to crawl, but so far there's no money for electricity.
Vetta will keep visiting Betty Sue and several other mothers, bringing books and toys, making sure that the babies' brains are stimulated and bodies properly nourished until they are 3 years old. Then the toddlers "graduate" to the "Raising a Reader" program where they go once a month to the school, receive a bag of books, and their moms participate in activities with the teachers and Vetta and her colleagues. By the time these kids start school, evaluations of the program show they are as ready as even the most affluent children.
But, of course, there are plenty of poor kids already in school who need a lot of help, and Owsley Elementary is ready to accept it when offered. An incredibly cheery place, with brightly painted murals imitating an old-fashioned schoolhouse in one hallway, a town square in another and a jungle in the lunchroom, school officials proudly show off the library, well stocked by Save the Children, which also provides in-school assistance for kids with reading difficulties.
More help comes in an after-school program where healthy snacks plus physical activity for these often-obese children are added to concentrated reading, writing and storytelling. And the kids love it, proudly performing for visitors, rushing to the computers to take comprehension tests after reading aloud.
When the day is finally done, the bus ride home can take more than an hour. The roads are so bad and the distances so great that 20 school days have been canceled this snowy winter, making it harder for these already struggling students to keep up. School superintendent Melinda Turner made sure that her guests took a spin along one bus route so we could understand just what she is up against.
All of this intensive attention is expensive and hard to implement. The only thing more expensive is not doing it — letting these kids continue to grow up unhealthy and uneducated so that they become drains on society at best, criminals at worst. Owsley County and Save the Children are giving baby McKenzie a shot — a chance to become a productive citizen. As President Obama said last week: "A good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity — it is a prerequisite."
Cokie Roberts' latest book is "Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation" (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.