Dec 26


Garrett Looker’s reporting on literacy

Investigative Post's education reporter explains his approach to covering the education beat. If a child can't read, they can't succeed in school, and probably later in life. Hence, his focus on literacy of Buffalo's schoolchildren.

Over the past year, parents, school district officials, education experts, and a smattering of others have told me – either directly or off-hand – that literacy is the key to a child’s future. 

It’s not necessarily surprising, nor is it a revelation. 

But after a year unpacking the state of reading in Buffalo, there’s at least one conclusion that can be reached: learning to read is complex.

At the core of it is a battle for a fair, equitable education for all of Buffalo’s children, education experts have said.

“Our district has a commitment to improving the literacy rates of our children,” Buffalo Superintendent Tonja Williams said during a November school board meeting.

My beat with Investigative Post is special – it differs from how other news organizations typically cover education. Instead of focusing on covering school board meetings, union leadership and daily happenings, I’ve chosen to dive into the complexities of literacy.

I’ve done this because of what the sources have said. Whether or not a child can read doesn’t only affect a school district. It can affect the future of entire communities. 

Literacy is a barometer of inequity and inequality, education experts have said. 

Investigating what those effects are led me to uncover large book deserts that impact neighborhoods all across Buffalo, many of which are on the East Side. 

It’s led me to better understand how deeply divided Buffalo can be. By focusing on literacy and book access, I’ve gotten a closer look at the unfair distribution of resources throughout the city. 

In some cases, children may rarely come in contact with a book outside of school. 

“What would this do to a child’s sense of hope?” asked Susan Neuman, a national literacy expert who studies book access. “What would this do to their aspirations? Their goals? If they never saw a book, why would they want to become literate? There’s no reason. I mean, the environment has an enormous impact on children’s learning.”

Buffalo’s commitment to literacy may prove to be a steep climb in the coming years. This past spring, only four in ten students read at grade level, according to the district’s testing data.

My reporting over the past year revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic had a “catastrophic” impact on the city’s youngest students. The share of early grade pupils reading at grade level dropped from 44 percent in 2019 to 30 percent in 2021. 

But since the students returned to the classroom, literacy rates have largely rebounded. Still, as teachers and district officials have recognized, gaps persist.

The rebound could, in part, be credited to Buffalo’s recent emphasis on phonics instruction.

 Donations up to $1,000 made by Dec. 31 will be matched

The district has taken a side in what is called “the reading wars,” a fight over how literacy is taught. Instead of weapons and infantry, this war is fought with curriculum and ideas.

Buffalo has dedicated itself to the science of reading – a phonics-based approach – to the tune of millions in funding, from staff training to new materials. 

“We’re trying to follow the science,” Anne Botticelli, the district’s chief academic officer, told me in an interview. “I think it’s what we need to do to make sure all students can read effectively.”

Education activists, like Tarja Parssinen, founder of WNY Education Alliance, and Jeff Smink of The Education Trust-New York, have commended Buffalo for its efforts. 

“It’s sort of the true meaning of equity,” Parssinen said of the district’s phonics approach. “It lifts everyone up.”

Certain themes emerged during the course of my interviews the past year.. 

Speaking with parents, I learned that families are facing pressures and struggles. They shared their concerns, their hopes, and their fears. For some, the educational structures are caving in. 

Teachers and district officials showed that work is being done. But some worry it will never be enough to catch students up. 

A year of reporting has shown that literacy, and education in general, is affected by forces both in and beyond the classroom. 

In the classroom, school district leaders, such as Williams and Botticelli, have stood by the phonics approach, opting to double down in the coming semester by focusing on the most at-risk learners. 

But federal pandemic relief money that has funded reading programs and the purchase of new materials is nearing an end

“The financial cliff, it’s coming for all of us,” said James Barnes, the district’s chief financial officer. “The funding is going away.”

Beyond the schoolyard, forces including poverty and housing instability weigh heavily on Buffalo’s youngest learners.

Many education experts and community activists believe Buffalo’s state of literacy is at a point of crisis. And beyond Buffalo and Western New York,  the politics of reading – even questions of who deserves to have access to books – are at play. 

“This is not a simple thing to unpack,” John Spears, director of he Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, said regarding the state of literacy and book deserts. “Libraries, I think, are kind of a canary in the coal mine with what’s happening on a societal level.”

To understand these forces and impacts is to get a glimpse into what may come of education, of students’ futures, and of the communities we call home.

Get our newsletters delivered to your inbox
* indicates required

Newsletters *


Investigative Post

Get our newsletters delivered to your inbox * indicates required

Newsletters *