A child in Orange County can run farther, score better on standardized tests and is less likely to join a gang than he or she was just a few years ago.
These realities are part of the good news in The 18th Annual Report on the Conditions of Children in Orange County, a compilation of statistics on the health of children, such as prenatal care and high-school dropout rates.
The bad news is that more Orange County children are in need of free and reduced-cost lunches, more are contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and the county's per-pupil spending is below the state average and on par with Mississippi.
In general, the report, which is issued by the Orange County Children's Partnership, shows how the Great Recession continues to take its toll on the most vulnerable but also how education efforts have worked.
Regarding fitness, consider that in 2002 barely half of the county's fifth-graders met basic standards for aerobic capacity, but by the 2010-2011 school year the percentage had gone up to 69 percent. There were similar increases for seventh- and ninth-graders.
That students are becoming more fit in an era of shrinking school budgets shows that finding creative ways to keep gym class a part of the school day is worth the effort, the report concluded.
"The data show that when [physical education] classes and teachers are supported in schools … students are more successful at reaching at least five out of six [fitness] goals," the report said.
However, while an increase in outreach seems to be working when it comes to fitness, the data indicates a continuing lack of awareness of sexually transmitted diseases.
Between 2001 and 2010, the county saw a 26-percent increase in the number of cases of STDs among children and youth aged 10 to 17.
When the report was presented to the Board of Supervisors late last month, Supervisor Shawn Nelson was alarmed to learn that children as young as 10 might be contracting STDs.
"This is a criminal issue, not a health issue," Nelson said.
County health officials cautioned Nelson not to jump to any conclusions, saying the vast majority of cases occur among youth aged 15 to 19.
Among the other findings in the report:
- The number of known gang members in Orange County dropped from a 10-year high of 1,896 in 2008 to 1,244 in 2011. Much of the credit for the drop has gone to the Orange County Gang Prevention and Intervention Partnership, the report said.
- Alcohol use among Orange County teens has dropped over the past decade, going from 44 percent in 1999-2000 to 32 percent in 2009-2010. Marijuana use, however, is rising among teens, according to the report, though it did not provide specific percentages.
- The number of Orange County students participating in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program continues to rise, going from 184,956 in the 2006-2007 school year to 228,121 in the 2010-2011 school year.
- The average per-pupil expenditure in Orange County for kindergarten through 12th grade was $7,722, which is below the state average of $8,323, below the national average of $10,770 and roughly the same as the average in Mississippi.
Click here to see the full report.