Literacy challenges being addressed

ROCHESTER — An incoming first-grader in the city does not know how to spell his name. He doesn’t recognize the letters of the alphabet. He doesn’t even know the alphabet song.

Unfortunately, he is not a rarity, said Colleen Sadowski, the Rochester City School District’s instructional director of the school library system and media services. As a former elementary school teacher and school librarian, she has worked with kindergarten and first-grade students who could not write or spell their names.

The reasons for this are many and may include a lack of preschool education or families lacking the time or resources to help their children due to financial constraints, Sadowski said.

"Reading may not always be a priority for a family where the parents are working two or three jobs," she explained. "Unfortunately, socioeconomic status is a big predictor of academic success."

Other factors that contribute to literacy challenges are school absences, families’ domestic issues and a lack of resources to meet the special needs of a child, said Superintendent Bolgen Vargas.

Such factors as well as the case of the incoming first-grader illustrate why the community needs to get behind "ROC the Future" efforts to get city students reading at grade level by third grade, school and city officials agree. ROC the Future is led by Monroe Community College, the United Way of Greater Rochester and The Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation.

"The research is very clear that if we want our children to be successful in school, we have to help them read by third grade," Vargas said, explaining that children learn to read in the primary years, but in fourth grade, that shifts to reading to learn.

"I know this can be done if teachers, schools, families and the community, if all are on the same page," he added.

The Harley School offers an option for city students to work on those literacy challenges through the Horizons academic enrichment program. The 6-year-old boy who doesn’t know how to spell his name takes part in the program and is one of nearly 150 city children enrolled at the Harley site, said Luis Perez, the program’s executive director there. More than 500 students are enrolled in the local consortium of summer enrichment programs located at area college sites as well, he said, with the goal to serve 1,000 children by 2017.

Yolanda Quakenbush, a literacy specialist in the Greece Central School District who oversees the reading program at Harley’s Horizon site, is working to ensure that the boy learns his name and the letters of the alphabet this summer.

"My goal is to start with just that," Quakenbush said. "You want to have one focus because if you focus on too many things, you confuse the child. But that’s a pretty important goal. (Knowing letters) is the basics for reading."

Such help with reading is urgently needed, as fewer than a quarter of Rochester third-grade students could read at grade level in 2011-12, according to a report by the Center for Governmental Research ( The report was funded by the United Way of Greater Rochester and The Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation.

Raising these literacy numbers also will help the district improve its high drop-out rate, according to the report, which found that third-grade children living in poverty were four times more likely to not graduate.

"If kids fail to become strong readers, communities pay later in terms of unskilled workers, increased incarceration rates and lack of educated citizenry," the report stated.

To develop that strong literacy foundation, the district — in partnership with area businesses and organizations, including Wegmans — has created several programs to try and get children excited about reading, Sadowski said. One such program is the "ROC Read" initiative that began two years ago to get children reading books during holiday breaks and over the summer. The books are provided by the district and its community partners.

This year, the district added a "Get Caught Reading" program, which was announced July 11 at Sully Public Library on Webster Avenue. Any student found reading at city parks, recreation centers or playgrounds will receive a coupon for a free ice cream from Abbott’s, Vargas said.

"We want to be sure our facilities are part of this program," noted Rochester Mayor Thomas Richards. "(Reading) is an important part of the summer for our kids."

The new program works hand-in-hand with the district’s summer ROC Read program, which is required for students at every grade level, Sadowski said. Students choose a book to read over the summer and complete corresponding activities such as a book report to receive tickets to a Red Wings game on Aug. 22.

Last year, more than 400 families showed up for the game, Vargas said.

Although school officials prefer not to use the word "incentives," encouraging students to read through such initiatives as ROC Read worked for children in Sherley Flores’ third-grade bilingual class at Pinnacle School No. 35.

Ergaliz Cornil and Jensey Rivera, both 9, were recognized for reading more than 30 books each over the school year and received special rewards. All of Flores’ third-grade students also received pins that said "Super Reader."

Ergnaliz said that she likes reading because it "helps you learn more about things and gives you information about things that happened in the past."

Jensey agreed.

"It’s fun so I can learn what the words mean, new words I don’t know," he said. "Reading is fun not just to read but to learn more about what (you) want to learn about. When teachers ask a question, you can know what happened and how to answer questions."

During the year, Flores said that she encouraged the kids to read every night. In the classroom, they have guided reading at their own levels as well as at grade level to help them meet the Common Core standards that were implemented last fall, she said.

The Common Core standards have been developed to get students college and career ready by the time they graduate high school, according to

"Students who meet the standards develop the skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening that are the foundation for any creative and purposeful expression in language," the website states.

Many of Flores’ students are reading at grade level, but that will be difficult to maintain over the summer if the students don’t continue reading, she said.

Quakenbush said that summer reading loss contributes to a national achievement gap for low-income students.

"If they are not getting this summer intensive reading program (like Horizons), most kids are as much as three years behind," she said.

More summer intervention programs are needed not only for city students but also for those in such suburbs as Greece, Quakenbush noted.

"We’re trying to get more and more colleges to join in and open up the Horizons program," she added. "If we can get them all on board, we can definitely touch more kids."

The city school district also has created a summer reading program for third-graders at the School of the Arts, Sadowski said. The program is part of a long-term study supported by the Wallace Foundation to see if all of the district’s initiatives succeed in boosting literacy rates and improving academic success, Sadowski said.

The bottom line is educators and families need to get kids excited about reading and be role models, said Vargas. At the end of June, School 35 librarian Donna Koperski tried to do that for her students by introducing them to the books on the summer list, many of which are multicultural.

"Vacation is about fun and I hope (students) realize reading is fun," Koperski said. "That’s our goal, to have a wide variety of books that (kids are) interested in and … we want it to be fun."

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