The reaction of most Schenectady residents to Superintendent Laurence Spring's recent revelation that 60 percent of the kids in the city school district can't read at grade level was a sad, resigned shake of the head. The reaction of Al Magid, a former college professor who lives in Niskayuna but whose wife used to teach English in Schenectady, was different. It was anger, and a desire to do something. That something is a major volunteer effort aimed at getting every parent or caretaker of a 4-year-old to read to their kids so they are ready to learn when they start school.
Magid has hit the heart of the problem. Pre-schoolers who aren't regularly read to, or exposed to enough words, at home are at a huge disadvantage when they start school, and wind up quickly getting behind, frustrated, labeled, in trouble. And they're unlikely to get the support they need at home to keep up, let alone catch up, because their parents are either unaware, uninterested or incapable of helping them.
Magid 's plan would use churches, community groups, social agencies, friends and acquaintances to hook up parents and caregivers with volunteers, who would explain to them why reading is so important and what their kids need to know by the time they start school. Volunteers would also be trained in instructing them how to teach their kids reading, and provide help if necessary.
The schools can't do it alone, especially in poor districts like Schenectady, where the finances are getting worse and programs and personnel are being cut. The only hope of giving disadvantaged kids the chance they deserve, of eliminating the "achievement gap" and raising the abysmal graduate rate (also around 60 percent), is a comprehensive volunteer campaign aimed at increasing literacy -- not just among pre-schoolers but at all ages and grade levels.
Magid 's proposal is a good way to start. In addition to the reading (and just as important, if not more), it would have the benefit of increasing parent involvement, which has been shown to have a major effect not just on literacy but on socialization, homework completion, attendance, discipline, etc. These are all the things that translate into success in school.
The school district should get solidly behind Magid 's plan, and go beyond it with a comprehensive volunteer program that could be called, "Schenectady Reads to (and with) Its Kids."
So should the Schenectady County Public Library, which was told at a public hearing last week that it needs more reading and other programs -- even though the county Legislature cut its budget by more than half a million dollars this year.
So should the Schenectady Foundation, which just announced that it will give out $2 million in grants this year, in celebration of its 50th anniversary, to worthwhile community programs, especially those that promise to strengthen families, be transformational and involve collaborative partnerships.
And, last but not least, so should the many talented, well-meaning retirees and other Schenectady County residents who would like to enlist in a good cause and make a difference in the lives of others. You are needed.