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What can be done to better help young readers?

What can be done to better help young readers?

Forum discusses need for additional programs
What can be done to better help young readers?
Barack Amadau, 3, reads with his teacher, Miranda Sawyer.
Photographer: Daily Gazette file photo

Leaders from nonprofit and public agencies that serve thousands of Schenectady youth acknowledged Thursday they need to better coordinate how they are working to improve literacy for young kids.

The Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, Schenectady County Youth Bureau, Schenectady Foundation and Schenectady City School District were all represented at a “community conversation” hosted by the Schenectady County public library.

The conversation centered on after-school and summer reading programs for students in early grades – kindergarten through fourth grade – and featured the directors of a New York City literacy program and a Rochester summer school program.

But the Schenectady leaders steered the conversation back to the city’s need to leverage existing programs in a way that better aligns how kids are taught reading skills over the summer, after school and in Schenectady classrooms.

The Boys and Girls Club, Schenectady-Glenville YMCA and Schenectady County programs all offer direct educational services to school-age kids, but they rely on a grab-bag of approaches, styles and method.  

“You can hear about four different community agencies doing amazing things but from a curriculum standpoint they are all approaching it in different ways,” said Kerri Messler, the district’s English language arts and library coordinator. “How do we start to look at each other as complementing the work we are doing? Then we can start to accelerate that.”

“There’s the ballgame – we can look at training the people we have doing [some of the work],” said Shane Bargy, director of the Boys and Girls Club of Schenectady, noting that he had not heard someone from the school district reach out local agencies in that way before. “We are serving the same mission… but we are doing them differently.”

The event was facilitated by Rosalind Kotz and Scot Felderman, childhood literacy consultants. They discussed doing more to establish a continuum of services within Schenectady to improve literacy beginning at birth and having kids reading on grade level by third grade. They pointed to a litany of statistics and studies that show the dramatic challenges kids from low-income communities face in learning how to read.

Even when students in districts with high levels of poverty – like Schenectady – progress through the school year, they often regress during the summer months, while their wealthy counterparts accelerate their learning.

“It truly is this trajectory of failure these students are on, and it’s decided for them early on,” said Kelley Perkins, executive director of the New York City-based Read Alliance.

Read Alliance coordinates a literacy tutoring program in New York that matches high school tutors with early-grade students for intensive one-on-one tutoring. The program serves students after school and over the summer within their home school building and partners with other organizations attention that serve students’ food needs or meet with parents and families. But the program’s success, Perkins said, lies in its simplicity and focus: drill reading skills into young students and let high school role models do the teaching.

“The fact they have this high school kid coming in to sit with them giving them their undivided attention for 45 minutes, you would think a pop star walked through the door these kids are so excited,” Perkins said.

Luis Perez, director of the Greater Rochester Summer Learning Association, described a summer school program used in Rochester. The association consists of a handful of individual summer programs that provide academic and recreational programs throughout the summer and serve the same student for close to 10 years.

“We are trying to create a place where 140 kids and 40 or 50 adults can come together summer after summer,” Perez said.

Kotz and Felderman are leading two more conversations next month: one focused on community alignment of literacy programs on April 21 and one on early language and developmental screening on April 25.

During the event, the couple alluded to a sense that Schenectady, as a whole community, does not offer a comprehensive continuum of high-quality reading program to kids from the earliest ages into the early grades of school, including preschool, afterschool and summer programs.

“Is it a gap-filled continuum or are we doing great?” Kotz asked during the discussion.

The married couple has at times been critical of the school district, arguing Superintendent Larry Spring should take more of a leadership role in bringing disparate community groups together to establish a cohesive

For his part, Spring has said the district is focused on serving school-age children from kindergarten to 12th grade – which they are legally chartered and required to do – and has suggested a broader community effort might better be led by the county or local nonprofit agencies. 

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