For thousands of years, the written word has been the primary tool for learning and communication. From recorded historical accounts to vibrant works of fiction, literacy has allowed many to flourish and connect with one another in deep and profound ways. However, many local children and families do not have equal access to effective literacy education.
According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), “some 34% of students are below basic reading level in the fourth grade, [and] another 31% are below the proficient reading level.” Moreover, ProLiteracy, an advocacy group dedicated to bridging the literacy gap, stated that “illiteracy is a major factor in whether adolescents graduate from high school. One in six high school students — or about 1.2 million teens — drop out each year.”
Locally, “test scores show that a stark contrast exists between Syracuse and other areas of Onondaga County,” according to 2021 data compiled by CNY Vitals. “Out of a potential four-point scale, the majority of students in the Syracuse City School District are testing at level one or two, meaning performance is well below proficient standards for the third-grade level.”
Thanks to the work of our local literacy coalitions, the Early Childhood Alliance, Say Yes to Education Syracuse, and multiple community organizations, our local community is beginning to see optimistic development in these areas.
“Far too many residents in Onondaga County, children and adults, have low literacy levels,” said Nancy Kern Eaton, president of United Way of Central New York. “We know that literacy is the key to a successful life, and we work to ensure that every child reaches Kindergarten ready to succeed, reads at grade level by third grade, and that all adults have the literacy skills for successful employment and full access to all opportunities.”
The United Way of CNY recently used a $100,000 grant from our Literacy Initiative Fund to further local literacy efforts through support of the Literacy Coalition of Onondaga. The Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County is using the funding to expand and increase awareness about Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, award Literacy Champion Grants and provide GED resources.
Through the coalition’s programs, literacy has become accessible to students regardless of age – GED resources support free classes for adults, and partners offer a variety of accessible English classes. At the same time, the Dolly Parton Imagination continues to support early childhood learning in the community. “The goal is for families to read together,” Eaton said. “So, it’s really to foster that love of books, and that opportunity to build vocabularies and language from birth, and how important that is.”
Ultimately, the organization hopes to increase the number of children enrolled in the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, distribute more Literacy Champion grants, and increase the number of adults enrolled in literacy programs.
“When we’re thinking about how we address our community’s biggest challenges, we are doing this work together,” Eaton said. “A lot of folks used to say, oh, everyone’s in silos and no one’s working together — that’s just not true.”