Tennessee’s 39th ranking is its best ever, in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2011 KIDS COUNT Data Book. It shows how good public policies and quality public-private and state-local partnerships make a difference in improving outcomes for Tennessee children.

The state’s ranking of 9th for the lowest percentage of teens not in school and not high-school graduates is also the best ranking Tennessee has ever had on a single indicator. Keeping children in school is critical for them to master challenging curricula and graduate prepared for college, technical school, or work.

Good public policies for compulsory attendance until age 18 and linking eligibility for a driver license to school attendance are incentives for staying in school. Welcoming school climates supportive of student growth, development, learning, and success are also critical.

The foundation for keeping children in and succeeding in school begins much earlier. KIDS COUNT reports improvements in infant mortality, child death, teen death, and teen birthrates, yet Tennessee still ranks near the bottom at 42nd in teen death, 43rd in teen birth, and 44th in infant mortality rates.

Also alarming is the increase of children in poverty. Living in poverty has a negative impact on child well-being, and the recession forced more families into poverty, many for the first time. Almost one in four children in Tennessee lived in poverty in 2009, with the state ranking 41st. Economic conditions in recent years have essentially wiped out all the progress in reducing child poverty during the 1990s.

Foreclosures and parental unemployment have added great stress to families with children. Financial stress often contributes to increases in divorces, and the percentage of children in single-parent families has increased since 2000. Slightly more than one in three Tennessee children lives in a single-parent family.

KIDS COUNT highlights “public policies that work,” strategies for improving outcomes for children. We know the importance of ensuring that children are born healthy, and in recent years Tennessee has put in place strategies to improve women’s health, prenatal care, and birth outcomes.

Science tells us the basic architecture of the brain is constructed through an ongoing process beginning before birth and continuing into adulthood. Like the construction of a home, this begins with laying the foundation, framing the rooms, and wiring the electrical system in a predictable sequence. Early experiences create a foundation for lifelong learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health.

Children need an environment of supportive, positive relationships to build sturdy brain architecture. Providing parental support early through quality home visiting and other parenting support programs can improve child outcomes. Quality pre-K programs are one of the best strategies for helping children, especially those in poor families, develop the social, emotional, and cognitive skills to succeed in school.

Tennessee’s pre-K programs meet high quality standards and are making a difference for young children. Expanding pre-K and home visiting programs with proven effectiveness would also make a tremendous difference.

We know how to improve outcomes for children. We just have to do it.