(Tribune News Service) — A new report released Feb. 16 finds that 88.6 percent of all Indiana high school students graduate on time, but in order to be career ready they should be prepared to attend college or technical training programs after graduation.

At the same time, families with modest incomes have the least access to quality preschool programs that can boost school readiness and strengthen a child’s academic skills in reading and math, according to the annual KIDS COUNT report compiled by the Indiana Youth Institute.

The percentage of Indiana’s 3- and 4-year-olds who are enrolled in an early education program (37.5 percent), has decreased since 2007, and is lower than the national average of 46.1 percent.

In other important findings:

• More Indiana teens have considered suicide in the past year (19 percent) than in any other state in the nation.

• And despite the current economic recovery, child poverty is not improving at the same rate — 22 percent of Hoosier children still live in poverty, according to the report.

"Every Hoosier needs to be aware of these high rankings,” said Bill Stanczykiewicz, president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. “The mental and emotional challenges Hoosier students face are very real.”

And even though the economy is getting better, “poverty and child poverty are usually the last indicators to improve,” he added.

While Stanczykiewicz said a high school graduation rate is “absolutely remarkable,” there is still work to be done.

"What we cannot do is celebrate and say mission accomplished,” he added. “We must continue to reinforce to young people that they must have education after high school.”

Two findings in this year’s report highlight that necessity.

Two in five employers surveyed rated high school graduates as “deficient” in their preparation for entry-level jobs.

As a result, three in five employers, or 58 percent, foresee hiring more four-year college graduates, and about half plan to hire more two-year college, or technical school graduates.

Stanczykiewicz said he’s been particularly impressed by the renewed emphasis on technical education in Anderson Community Schools with the new Anderson High School District 26 Career campus, and duel credit opportunities through Ivy Tech Community College and Purdue University.

But one of the serious education issues the report identified as a deficiency is the low number of counselors employed in Indiana schools to help students chart their future.

Indiana ranks 42nd in the nation for student-to-school counselor ratio. There’s one counselor for every 535 students, and most say their time is not spent on getting kids ready for college or the workforce, according to the report.

"Counselors are usually the first line of defense in helping our teens decide what their future could look like,” Stanczykiewicz said.

But the seeds of a successful school career and work life after school are planted early, which is why there’s such an emphasis on early education in Indiana and across the nation.

"We are bursting at the seams,” with 330 students said Shelley Caldwell, principal of Southview Preschool Center in Anderson. “That’s a good problem to have. ... We know there’s a lot of unmet need out there.”

Caldwell quickly ticks off what multiple studies have shown about the benefits of early learning: education: 3- to 5-year-olds enrolled in quality preschool programs have better language and literacy skills, which improves the likelihood of high school graduation, college attendance, and being employed in skilled jobs.

"Preschool is the tool, or the vehicle for building language into a child,” Caldwell said. “It helps level the playing field.”

"The biggest challenge in Anderson that we face with preschool is serving families that don’t have access to transportation,” she added. “Last year, we had a dad who rode a bike with his child in a buggy to school. That’s how important this program was to him.”

In addition, the Madison County United way is continuing its “Born Learning” program, an early childhood initiative in place since 2007 with buy-in from the county public schools.

The goal is to make contact with pregnant mothers and help communicate the importance of healthy behavior and learning even from birth.

She said United Way is working to increase its reach to “people under the radar” by combining databases of households that have received financial assistance or help in paying utility bills.

The annual data book is is funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation as part of its national effort to inform program and policy decisions based on real-world data.

©2015 The Herald Bulletin (Anderson, Ind.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC