Rochester, New York is my hometown. My grandparents emigrated there nearly 100 years ago, and my mother is a graduate of the Rochester City School District. I was born and raised in and around Rochester, now raising my own family there. While I am proud to be a Rochesterian, it can be a community of often jarring juxtapositions. Frequently ranked as one of the best places to live for its quality of life, Rochester also has one of the highest child poverty rates in the nation, with 48% of children living in poverty along with a long-struggling school district plagued by a combination of low expectations for students and unstable leadership.

At the same time, Rochester has a long and proud history of social justice and is the home of both Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. The prominent Black abolitionist, social reformer, writer, and statesman spent much of his life in Rochester, where he continued to prioritize literacy as the pathway to freedom, equality, and empowerment for Black people.

Douglass’ legacy makes the current state of reading performance in Rochester and New York State even more unsettling. According to the 2022-23 New York State English Language Arts assessment, only 15% of third graders in the Rochester City School District were considered proficient in reading. These outcomes are even more egregious when research shows that 95% of all students, regardless of background, are cognitively capable of learning to read. At the state level, New York ranks 37th in fourth grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), despite the highest per-pupil spending rate in the nation.

The ability to read is a civil and human right. Reading proficiently by the end of third grade is one of the most important indicators of future student success. It also has significant implications for community outcomes such as employment, poverty, public safety, and health.  When students are denied the right to read, it can lead to negative life outcomes, including dropping out of school, incarceration, and poor health. And when students are taught to read, it opens doors to a much brighter future where anything is possible. As Douglass famously said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

EdTrust believes deeply in the power of literacy, which affects everything we care about as an education equity organization. It led EdTrust-New York to prioritize early literacy and in 2023 release a report, A Call to Action: The State of Early Literacy in New York, which unearthed a disjointed early literacy landscape in the state. New York trails the nation in both student reading outcomes and alignment with the science of reading, a vast body of scientifically based research on how children learn to read.

We are pleased the conversation around early literacy is beginning to change across New York State. In early January, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced a new investment in early literacy and the science of reading, and while many districts and communities have begun to embrace the issue, it is not enough. We need to do more to ensure all children are provided with the necessary tools to improve reading outcomes across the state.

This sense of urgency drove Ed Trust–NY to create the New York Campaign for Early Literacy. Launching in January, the Campaign is a statewide movement designed to harness the collective voices of individuals and civil rights, education, parents, and nonprofit organizations to improve student reading outcomes, from birth to age 8. It is a natural next step in our work on early literacy, which seeks policy changes at the state and local levels that promote the use of evidence-based instruction aligned with the science of reading. With more than 80 partners and growing, we are excited about the potential for meaningful change in the coming months and years.

As these changes happen and more students learn to read, I can begin to imagine a much different future for Rochester and New York State. One where classrooms are full of engaged, joyful teaching and learning. Where poverty rates decline, and employment rates increase across the community — and where all high school graduates are fully literate and prepared to change the world in ways we can only dream about.