United Way Helps Preschoolers Learn to Read in Lackawanna

By Melodie Baker, Program Director - Education

Walking into Truman Elementary Pre-K classrooms in the Lackawanna City School District, I encountered frustrated teachers desperately trying to teaching four-year-olds how to read. The Lackawanna City School District is home to a growing population of immigrants. Many of the students’ first introduction to English take place on the day they enter Pre-K for the first time. According to a 2017 New York State Department of Education (NYSED) report, LCSD reading scores ranked lowest in Erie County reporting 10% proficiency for 3rd graders. As the Director of Education at United Way it is my goal to identify under-resourced, high-need communities.  

After conducting a needs-assessment with the administration, I knew the traditional approach to literacy intervention would not work for the Truman population. The Pre-K students required an early reading program that was language development and comprehension focus. Fortunately we were already funding Magic Penny, a phonemic based early literacy program showing promising results in the City of Buffalo with a similar population.

Instead introducing the phonetically complex English alphabet to students as rites of passage into literacy, Magic Penny taught the children sounds. Words like “choir” and “sixth” do not directly correspond with the alphabet sounds which makes learning English via alphabets extremely difficult.

The program takes about 30 minutes per day to implement, requires small group instruction, and provides all of the materials that teachers need. It helps Pre-K and Kindergarten teachers to target the essential early literacy skills throughout the day and not just during their Magic Penny time.  A parent training component also comes with the program and can help involve parents in the process. 

After three months of implementation, the superintendent reached out to me in sheer excitement, exclaiming in tears that the program was working. The superintendent visited the Pre-K classrooms and witnessed children reading who were on the verge of being classified as special education students. Teachers with over thirty-five years of experience shared that they have not seen anything like Magic Penny. One teacher excitedly told me that Magic Penny had helped her students learn to read in a record three months.

WNY is known for being a pioneer society. When a wagon needed to be built, the entire community would came together to make it happen. There was a sense of togetherness that was the source of pride for the community. Working together to improve outcomes for the Pre-K students in the City of Lackawanna was like building the wagon. Not everyone could engineer the wheels or make the cover, but thanks to United Way, everyone was empowered to help where they can.  

By June of 2017, The Magic Penny Pre-K Literacy Initiative reported that 51% of the Pre-Kindergarten students at Truman Elementary were reading at or above Kindergarten level and 79% of the students were decoding.We do not expect to see improved changes in statewide assessments until these Preschoolers enter third grade. However, the results prove that we are on the right track and when we work together to identify the most critical needs of our community, we become much stronger. I can’t make wagon wheels perfectly fitted for a cobblestone road. Likewise, I cannot design a reading program for English language learners, but I know someone who can.