In response to news that 6,000 Schenectady students are reading below grade level, one man wants to hit the problem early rather than focusing on the students already in school.
Retired professor Al Magid is recruiting volunteers to help him get Schenectady’s preschoolers ready for kindergarten, so that they don’t start school already behind.
That, he said, is the only way to resolve Schenectady’s reading problem. If children keep entering the school system without the fundamentals of reading, teachers will forever be trying to catch them up.
But he doesn’t want to follow the common model of matching adults to each child for mentoring and one-on-one reading. Instead, he wants volunteers to train the parents and run several big reading events throughout the year. The rest of the time, parents will work with their children.
“I want the primary deliverer to be the caretakers,” he said. “They’re the ones with the children day in, day out.”
Magid met with a Community Collaboration group Wednesday to pitch his idea to the various agencies they represent. He plans to bring the same pitch to every organization in the city, from businesses to churches, in hopes of getting everyone involved.
He needs their help to reach every preschooler they know.
“I want every 4-year-old, and I mean literally, every 4-year-old,” he said. “All of them. Every one of them. You never know anything is realistic unless you try it.”
Magid also needs hundreds of volunteers. He wants them to explain to parents exactly what their children need to be able to do by kindergarten. He wants teachers to train the parents in reading methods. Then he wants volunteers to encourage the parents throughout the year and organize intervention when parents say they need help.
And he needs to connect with every caregiver, so that his group can teach them.
“If you’re in the city, we want you,” he said. “No ifs, ands, or buts. If Grandma takes care of the kid, we want Grandma. If the neighbor takes care of the kid, we want the neighbor.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, school district grant writer Suzanne DeWald told Magid that he’ll have to do more than just provide instruction to the parents.
He’ll need books — and lots of them, so that parents can go to the next reading level as their children progress.
“Many of our homes lack that material,” she said. “That’s going to be key to this.”
But she added that she loves the idea.
“I agree that the approach is much better. Preparatory is always better than compensatory,” she said. “I think it’s a wonderful idea.”
Others said they buy picture books and early readers at garage sales and thrift stores to give to Schenectady teachers. They suggested calling for a city-wide effort to collect those books and distribute them, with parents passing their books on when their children reach the next level.
Also at the meeting, researcher Rosalind Kotz questioned whether 4-year-olds are the right focus. Her research suggests that intervention is far more effective if it happens before age 2.
“Because they’re not going to be ready if you intervene at 4,” she said. “Five hundred children are not ready for school [each year]. I’d rather work on that and then decide” what the best age is for intervention.
But other group members said Schenectady’s population moves repeatedly — so much so that school officials aren’t even sure which 4-year-olds will still be living in the city at age 5.
If the initiative focuses on much younger children, many of Schenectady’s children may be missed simply because they moved in after the target age.
Magid proposed a 15-month planning process, but group members said they wanted to get started right away.
They proposed starting at one school — possibly Lincoln Elementary, which has a grant for community-based projects like this — and then expanding it in a year.
But Kotz said Magid should keep recruiting other groups, trying to get the city to focus on the initiative.
“Every meeting I go to, there’s two new initiatives. We need to pick two or three and really work on them,” she said. “It would be the synergy of doing it all together … to not go off in separate directions with the same children.”