PROVIDENCE — Elizabeth Burke Bryant plans to step down after 28 years as executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count, the state’s leading child advocacy organization, the group announced this week.
The Providence-based nonprofit publishes the annual Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook, a source of data and policy information for 70 indicators of child well-being. Throughout her tenure, Burke Bryant and the group have been “focused on the glaring and unacceptable disparities in child outcomes by race, ethnicity, and income,” the announcement said.
Burke Bryant will remain executive until the end of the year as the board of directors undertakes a search for her successor. But first, she took part in this Q&A with Globe Rhode Island:
Why are you stepping down now?
I am stepping down by the end of this year because I have such confidence in our amazing staff and board to lead the work of Kids Count forward with continued success and impact. It feels like it’s a good time. The organization has been very successful in contributing to major policy victories for Rhode Island children and families, and its impact will continue in full.
What are some of those policy victories?
I am most proud of the establishment of Rhode Island pre-K programs, which are ranked No. 1 for quality. We were one of the last states in the country to establish a pre-K program, but now we are ranked first in the nation for quality, and each year we have seen the program serve more young children with high quality early-childhood education. It serves children in a mixed delivery setting, so pre-K can be offered in child-care centers, Head Start programs, and in public schools, as long as they can meet very high quality standards.
What remains to be accomplished when it comes to pre-kindergarten programs in Rhode Island?
The goal is universal access to pre-K for all 4-year-olds, and as many other states have done, to expand to serve 3-year-olds. So universal access for 3- and 4-year-old children in Rhode Island is on its way. It has been stated as a goal of legislative leaders and there is a lot of support in the General Assembly because they know how important it is for children to be able to attend pre-K, which helps them be ready for the rest of their education.
What has been another policy victory?
The increase in the percentage of Rhode Island children with health insurance coverage. Now, we are ranked fourth in the country with just 2.5 percent of Rhode Island children remaining uncovered. But we had a major victory last year when the General Assembly re-established the policy of providing health insurance through the RIte Care program regardless of immigration status. That is so important because children need to be healthy in order to take full advantage of educational opportunities, to have healthy growth and development, to have preventive health care and regular doctor checkups. And I think that means Rhode Island will soon lead the nation in access to health insurance coverage for children.
While those are some victories, what has been your biggest frustration?
We have not seen the improvement Rhode Island needs to see in student achievement and academic outcome. We are lagging behind the country in many of our educational indicators. The recent Kids Count national data book had Rhode Island ranked 31st for four educational outcomes. Every generation of students matters, and we need to see much swifter progress on student achievement in order for Rhode Island to have the workforce it needs in the future and for children to reach their full potential. One strategy to get there is for Rhode Island to adopt a constitutional right to education — a right to an equal, adequate and meaningful education — as 24 other states have done in their state constitutions, including Massachusetts and Vermont.
When did the Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook begin?
The Factbook started in 1995, and from the beginning we wanted it to be the clearinghouse for the best available data on children and families in Rhode Island. In the past 28 years, it has grown from covering 22 to 70 indicators or issues across child health, education, economic well-being, safety, and early-child development. From the start, we focused on the whole child and family, with a key focus on children living in poverty and the unacceptable, persistent disparities that we see across all of these areas by race and ethnicity.
We have been able to have a solid foundation of the best available policy data and information. You are able to bring the facts in front of lawmakers to show trends in what works and what does not work, and it has been the foundation for our successful advocacy work. It is used by people across the state to fuel their advocacy work for children, and that is what we were hoping for when we were first beginning.
Can you give us an idea of the human faces behind all those numbers?
One of our goals is to really put the human face on these issues so that when we are advocating it’s not just statistics — it’s about real children and families. So part of the effort to do that is ensuring that youth and families with lived experience are part of any policy discussions from the start because these policies affect their lives and futures. So we have been fortunate to work with incredible young people involved with organizations including Young Voices, Youth in Action, Youth Pride, the Providence Student Union, ARISE, and many more. I remember walking with those opposing an increase in the number of miles students would have to walk to school in Providence. That policy was changed, so it really shows the impact of the advocacy of young people themselves.
What kind of impact did the pandemic have on children in Rhode Island and how long will we be feeling those affects?
The COVID pandemic had and continues to have a very big impact on children, youth, and their families in Rhode Island. The COVID pandemic hit families of color hardest, especially in some of our urban communities where they bore the brunt of the illness itself, with much higher percentage of people of color contracting COVID. Also, there was the economic impact it had on families sometimes working two jobs to support families, many times in the service economy where they had to be out on the front lines. That economic impact continues to be felt. And across the state, there has been a very, very significant impact on youth and children’s mental health. There was a significant problem with children needing mental health service before the pandemic, and during the pandemic it became even worse. Behavioral health hotline calls doubled from 4,900 to nearly 9,000 calls. Kids were isolated from their peers, teachers, coaches, and other outside activities that help them to thrive.
The General Assembly passed three gun bills this year, but are there other bills you would like to see become law? And how does that issue affect children?
I have something really startling on that: We report in our Factbook that in Rhode Island between 2016 and 2020 there were 189 emergency room visits due to gun-related injuries involving children and youth. And from 2016 to 2020, there were a total of five deaths to children as a result of firearms, with the majority of these deaths over the age of 15. So it has been very important to pass the gun bills that the legislature passed in the past two sessions, and there is still work to do to decrease gun violence. I would like to see the assault weapons ban passed in the coming session.
What will you do next?
I will continue to focus my time and energy on Rhode Island Kids Count until the end of year. And I look forward to considering next steps after that. I will always be a child advocate. It has been a privilege to do this work every day since the start.