The link between poverty and poor literacy development is clear: Poverty makes it harder for children to focus on learning a complex task, and the stress of daily life can discourage adults from talking with their small children in ways that encourage them to expand their nascent vocabularies.
That's as true in Schenectady as it is in Rochester, 200 miles to the west. Both upstate cities have diverse populations, and around 25 percent of their families living in poverty. When schools teach reading, it shows.
Rochester, however, is making a coordinated community-wide effort to break the link between poverty and reading struggles. Mayor Lovely Warren is personally involved.
"We recognize that if a child actually has the support that it needs to get to reading on grade level by third grade, then their chances of ending in incarceration or not finishing high school is diminished," Warren told the Gazette.
Warren, who has a 6-year-old daughter, launched the "3 to 3" initiative a few months after she took office in 2014. The initiative emphasizes literacy development for young children starting by age 3 and working with them through the third grade -- the point at which literacy experts say it becomes harder for children to learn to read, if you haven't already. She lobbied for state funding and private foundation grants to pay for the efforts.
Under the "3 to 3" initiative, the city has worked with the Rochester Public Library and other partners to increase preschool reading programs, strengthen summer library reading programs and distribute free children's books. Preschool enrollment in the city has shot up dramatically, and reading is specifically incorporated into the programs at the city's Recreation and Community Centers. Summer recreation programs have adopted a policy of DEAR -- Drop Everything And Read" -- for 30 minutes each day.
As of this spring, the Rochester Public Library had distributed more than 2 million children's books for free since 2014, an encouragement for parents to read to children and for children to sound out their first words.
The private Wallace Foundation, meanwhile, is piloting a national model for summer reading, using Rochester as one location. The city and organizations trying to improve early reading outcomes are linked through Roc the Future, a collaboration of dozens of organizations involved in youth development, from birth through finding a career.
In April, the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading recognized Rochester’s work eliminating barriers low-income families face with reading with a 2016 Pacesetter Award.
"More and more of our children are reading at grade level," Warren said. "It takes a village, and it's really about ensuring that that village is strong."
The Grow Rochester initiative, under which the University of Rochester's Children's Institute screens Rochester children at age three for vision, hearing, speech, social and emotional development, dental health and physical development, with a goal of providing help early if a child needs help before reaching school age. Problems in any of those areas can impact a child's ability to absorb language and then learn to read.
"The Grow initiative definitely aligns with the 3 to 3 initiative," said Lauri Strano, director of programs and services at the Children's Institute, which does research on early childhood development. "All these physical and emotional things are part of early literacy, if you think about it."
Scott Felderman, an education consultant in Schenectady, cited Rochester as an example of collaboration among Head Start and pre-kindergarten providers, and noted that the screening effort -- which reaches about 1,100 of the 3,100 children born in Rochester each year -- is innovative.
Another Northeastern community where the city government has taken initiative to improve literacy outcomes is Providence, Rhode Island, which in 2013 won a $5 million "Mayor's Challenge" grant competition held by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
In October 2015, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza launched "Providence Talks," with the goal of increasing childhood language development in the city's poorest households by getting parents to talk more to their toddlers -- something program officials said has never been done in this way before. The program has been the topic of favorable articles in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other national publications.
Providence Talks uses technology placed in participating households that measures the number of words children are hearing and the amount of parent-child interaction taking place in the household. Based on the results, social workers work with parents or caregivers on ways to increase their children's language exposure during the pre-school years.
"Providence Talks proposes to do something never before attempted at the municipal level: to intervene at a critically early age, from birth to age 3, to close the '30 million word gap' at a citywide scale and ensure that every child in Providence enters a kindergarten classroom ready to achieve at extraordinary levels," the program says on its website.
So, could similar initiatives ever come to Schenectady?
"I know there's been a lot of pocket programs but to my knowledge, nothing has been done citywide by the mayor and council," said City Council President Leesa Perazzo. "I can't imagine we wouldn't be open to it. Our youth are our most important asset. ... It's something I'd like to look at some more."
Based to some extent on what he's learned about Rochester, the Schenectady County Youth Bureau will be incorporating more reading in its summer programs this year, said Youth Bureau Director Ed Kosiur, who is also on the City Council.
A partnership with the city school district, now in its 10th year, offers 45 minutes of "classes" each day during the summer camp run for 200 children ages 8 to 13 from July 5 to Aug. 4 in Central Park. "Our main emphasis is reading and math," Kosiur said, noting the instructors regularly see children who are reading far below grade level.
A new program this summer will give 50 of the children login access to 10,000 books, and the Youth Bureau is paying for the school district's "mobile library" to distribute free children's books. Reading therapy dogs are also part of the plan, and Kosiur said that for the first time, the Youth Bureau will pay for high school-age counselors to go to free lunch sites in the city and read out loud to preschool audiences. Volunteers from MVP will also come in for read-aloud sessions with the children.
"There's a lot of reading stuff, as you can see, that is going on in Schenectady," Kosiur said. "It's actually a response to what our community needs are. We see it here on a regular basis."
Other stories in this series
- How Schenectady first-graders learn to read
- Stay & Play a valuable program for families
- Library leads effort to target literacy from birth to 8 years old
- Partnership brings early educators, district together
- City to roll out elementary summer school program
- A look at other New York literacy programs
- Get involved: Child literacy resources