SCHENECTADY — Reading proficiency levels in the Schenectady City School District are well below 50 percent for third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students, according to state testing date collected before the COVID-19 pandemic.
When one educator saw the city’s reading numbers back in 2012, he developed a supplemental program for children in the Schenectady school district, with a focus on aiding elementary students.
“Third grade is the gateway to the future and that is where we are trying to get (the kids),” said Alvin Magid, a former political science professor at the University at Albany.
According to the Literacy Project, just 33 percent of fourth-graders nationwide reach the level of proficiency in reading skills. In Schenectady, 34 percent of third-graders scored as proficient when the state ELA exam was last administered, 32 percent of fourth-graders, and, only 17 percent of fifth-graders reached the level of proficiency in the 2018-2019 school year.
In late 2013, Magid launched Reading is Fun. Over his eight years as executive director of the program, Magid’s enthusiasm for encouraging kids’ reading skills has been steadfast.
“We are very serious about this. We are like missionaries,” he said.
The program has grown to include 53 volunteers from across the Capital Region, who work with 49 teachers and 134 students at the 11 elementary schools in the city school district.
Volunteers are matched with a student at the beginning of the school year, and they continue to work with that student for the duration of the academic year.
“What I love about this program is how it’s one-to-one. A volunteer reads with one student for about half an hour,” said Mary Crimp-Batzinger, the program’s library coordinator.
The volunteers generally work with their students on skills such as identifying letters, letter combinations, and conversational skills, said Magid.
“The key is finding ways to keep kids engaged and eager to finish a story,” said MaryJane Shave, who just finished her fourth year as a volunteer with the group. “The challenge is trying to find books that interest them and that motivate them to read.”
In a typical school year, the volunteer and the student’s teacher work together to find a convenient time for the student to be pulled out of class each week, said Debra Borden, a second-grade teacher at Woodlawn Elementary. The volunteer and student sit together in the hallway or in the school library, working through books that they have selected together.
This year, though, all Schenectady elementary students were virtual, so volunteers were forced to meet with their students on Zoom instead.
Meg Levine, a volunteer with Reading is Fun since 2016, said she learned over this past year that periodic dance and stretch breaks were vital to keeping the kids engaged in what they were reading. A typical Zoom session included reading together, coaching young readers through sounding out words, chatting about the story, holding a dance party, and sometimes assisting them with other homework, Levine said.
Another important aspect of the program is giving the kids books in an effort to encourage them to enjoy reading. As library coordinator, Crimp-Batzinger collects books and runs the program’s library space at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Schenectady, where volunteers can come to pick out books for their students.
“I find what they’re interested in reading about and try to find books that respond to their interest,” said Levine. She even printed up “Reading is Fun” stickers for the kids to put on the books they had finished reading.
Both the volunteers and teachers have noticed an overall improvement in the reading skills of their students throughout the course of the school year. “One kid went from marginal to reading Captain Underpants books,” Shave said. “Other ones continue to struggle, but generally there is improvement over the course of the year.”
Students are required to know 200 sight words before the end of the year, Borden said. “They gain more knowledge in reading and writing,” Borden added.
Reading is Fun volunteers serve as supplemental reinforcers of the teachers’ instruction in the classroom, Magid said. “We are not after the jobs of the teachers. We are additive. We know your burden with so many kids,” he said.
Moving forward, the program plans to return to all in-person meetings for the upcoming school year. They also hope to bring on more volunteers from the city of Schenectady, as most current volunteers are from Niskayuna, Burnt Hills, and Guilderland, Crimp-Batzinger said.
While 73% of students in the city school district identify as nonwhite, Reading is Fun volunteers are largely retirees who do not match that demographic, Magid said.
“If more of Schenectady knows who we are and what we do, we would bring in more people from Schenectady,” Crimp-Batzinger said. “It’s about Schenectady and it’s for these Schenectady students whose graduation rate is low.”
Above anything else, Reading is Fun seeks volunteers who love reading and want to share that love with Schenectady elementary school students.
“We’re not there to teach them how to read, but I think we’re there to reinforce what they’re learning in school and help them develop a love of reading,” Crimp-Batzinger said.