The group takes care of the reading needs of the pupils of Schenectady; Reading is fun complements classroom instruction
SCHENECTADY – Reading proficiency levels in the city of Schenectady school district are well below 50% for third, fourth and fifth graders, according to date of state tests collected before the COVID-19 pandemic .
When an educator saw the city’s reading numbers in 2012, he developed an additional program for children in the school district of Schenectady, with an emphasis on helping elementary school students.
“The third year is the gateway to the future and that’s where we try to get (the kids),” said Alvin Magid, former professor of political science at the University of Albany.
According to the Literacy Project, only 33 percent of fourth-graders nationwide reach the reading proficiency level. In Schenectady, 34% of third-graders scored proficient in the last administration of the state ELA exam, 32% of fourth-graders and only 17% of fifth-graders achieved proficiency level during the 2018-2019 school year.
At the end of 2013, Magid launched Reading is Fun. During his eight years as the program’s executive director, Magid’s enthusiasm for encouraging children’s reading skills has been unwavering.
“We are very serious about this. We are like missionaries, ”he said.
The program has grown to include 53 volunteers from across the capital region, who work with 49 teachers and 134 students in the 11 elementary schools in the city’s school district.
Volunteers are matched with a student at the start of the school year and continue to work with that student throughout the school year.
“What I like about this program is how individual it is. A volunteer reads with a student for about half an hour, ”said Mary Crimp-Batzinger, the program’s library coordinator.
Volunteers typically work with their students on skills such as letter identification, letter combinations and conversation skills, Magid said.
“The key is to find ways to keep children engaged and eager to complete a story,” said MaryJane Shave, who has just completed her fourth year as a volunteer with the group. “The challenge is to try to find books that interest them and that motivate them to read.
In a typical school year, the volunteer and the student’s teacher work together to find a convenient time for the student to be removed from the classroom each week, said Debra Borden, second-grade teacher at Woodlawn. Elementary. The volunteer and the student sit together in the hallway or in the school library, working on books they have selected together.
This year, however, all of Schenectady’s elementary students were virtual, so volunteers were forced to meet their students on Zoom instead.
Meg Levine, a Reading is Fun volunteer since 2016, said she had learned over the past year that periodic breaks from dancing and stretching were essential to keeping children engaged in what they were reading. A typical Zoom session included reading together, coaching young readers by saying words, discussing the story, hosting a dance party and sometimes helping them with other homework, Levine said.
Another important aspect of the program is to give books to children in order to encourage them to enjoy reading. As the library coordinator, Crimp-Batzinger collects books and manages the program’s library space at First United Methodist Church in downtown Schenectady, where volunteers can come and choose books for their students.
“I find what interests them and I try to find books that meet their interest,” Levine said. She even printed “Reading is Fun” stickers that the children put on the books they had finished reading.
Both volunteers and teachers have noticed an overall improvement in their students’ reading skills throughout the school year. “One kid went from being marginalized to reading Captain Underpants books,” Shave said. “Others continue to struggle, but overall there is improvement over the year.”
Students are required to know 200 sight words by the end of the year, Borden said. “They are learning more about reading and writing,” added Borden.
Reading is Fun volunteers serve as additional reinforcements for teaching teachers in the classroom, Magid said. “We are not looking for the work of teachers. We are additives. We know your burden with so many children, ”he said.
Going forward, the program plans to return to all face-to-face meetings for the next school year. They also hope to recruit more volunteers from the town of Schenectady, as most of the current volunteers are from Niskayuna, Burnt Hills and Guilderland, Crimp-Batzinger said.
While 73% of students in the city’s school district identify as non-white, Reading is Fun’s volunteers are largely retirees who don’t fit that demographic, Magid said.
“If more Schenectady knows who we are and what we do, we would attract more people from Schenectady,” Crimp-Batzinger said. “It’s about Schenectady and it’s for those Schenectady students with low graduation rates.”
Above all else, Reading is Fun is looking for volunteers who love to read and want to share that love with the students at Schenectady Elementary School.
“We’re not here to teach them to read, but I think we’re there to reinforce what they’re learning in school and help them develop a love of reading,” said Crimp-Batzinger.
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