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City underatakes challenge to raise literacy

Date: 9/19/2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

HOLYOKE — Statistics show that if a child can read at grade level in third grade, then he or she will be literate and finish high school.

That's the goal of a new effort in Holyoke called the Early Literacy Initiative and last week Andrew Melendez was named its coordinator.

Mayor Alex Morse said that currently only about 25 percent of the city's third graders are reading at grade level, according to the results of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Survey.

The goal for the initiative is to raise that rate to 85 percent by 2014.

The effort is being funded by a $100,000 grant from the Davis Foundation and the United Way of the Pioneer Valley. The grant will pay for Melendez's salary as well as for a bilingual, bicultural facilitation consultant.

To emphasize the city's commitment to the initiative, Melendez's office will be in City Hall.

A Holyoke native, Melendez is the former director of Homework House and was the director of the Latino Chamber of Commerce in Holyoke. He said that he started the planning stages for his work the week previous to the announcement.

He said that being able to read is more than something needed for school, it's a "life skill." While at Homework House, he saw the value of reading just 20 minutes a day to children.

When asked about the short schedule to make such a sizable improvement, Melendez said the initiative is "setting the bar high."

"We can make that happen," he insisted.

One key to the success will be working with parents on a grass roots level, Melendez said.

School Committee member Michael Moriarty said much of the Holyoke campaign would be based on a literacy plan developed by The Davis Foundation, which he praised.

"Even with that [the plan], the work will be enormous," Moriarty said.

He noted that he has visited classrooms and seen teachers do their jobs and yet the city's students do not do well with literacy testing. The problem, he added, is to educate parents regarding what they can do to reinforce what is going on in the classroom.

Moriarty said, "They [the parents] are doing the best they can, but need a lot of help."

"There is no easy solution," he added.

Moriarty characterized the problem as being one that affects children from birth to 9 years of age and he said the school system doesn't have much "access" to the children from ages 0 to 5.

School Superintendent David Dupont said that literacy "is not just a Holyoke issue, but is a national one."