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Niagara University Literacy Center director spreads importance of reading

LEWISTON – Kathleen McGrath loves a good book.

As lead faculty member of the College of Education’s Family Literacy Center (FLC) at Niagara University, McGrath said she believes “Reading can very powerfully change the trajectory of a life.”

Through her Niagara graduate school position, McGrath teaches certified teachers how to help students in kindergarten through eighth grade best realize their literacy potential – whether it is through remedial work or enrichment programs.

“If I teach 20 graduate students, for example, think of how many students and families these teachers will touch over the course of their careers,” she said.

“Teachers have such an exciting vantage point to spread the importance of reading,” she added. “And hours spent reading are the No. 1 predictor for later academic success for students.”

The FLC will begin another Enrichment Book Club for children in grades two through eight, set for 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday and continuing March 31 and April 14 and 28. There are still openings and as with all FLC programs, there is no charge. The FLC is located in Room 125 in Niagara’s Academic Complex.

After a year of planning, McGrath helped launch the center’s pilot program in 2012, and is quick to credit her colleagues’ collaboration. They include: Robin Erwin, Donna Phillips, Michelle Ciminelli, Patricia Wrobel, Niagara’s assistant dean for external relations; and Debra Colley, who currently serves as NU’s executive vice president. Chandra Foote is the College of Education’s interim dean.

A Niagara professor since 2010, McGrath shares her Lewiston home with her husband, Dr. Tim McGrath, an orthopedic surgeon, and their four children, ages 11 to 18.

McGrath recently took some time to reflect on her career and how personal experiences helped fuel her choices – important memories that propel her to success to this day.

Are you a Niagara County native?

I was raised in Appleton and graduated from Barker High School in 1988. I graduated from Niagara University in 1992 with a dual major in English and elementary education. I worked as a long-term sub in Wilson schools, then taught in Sweet Home Schools from 1993 to 2006. I received my master’s in literacy from the University at Buffalo and then was asked to stay on for a graduate assistantship, where I trained graduate students at UB’s Center for Literacy and Reading Instruction.

What led you to teaching, and, specifically, a literacy concentration?

I had remarkable teachers in my own life. I think my kindergarten teacher set the stage for me as far as helping others.

Growing up in a very large family, I had a couple of siblings who struggled with reading. My brother, Stephen, was reading at a third-grade level when he was in seventh grade.

My sister, Veronica, and I were working at the UB Reading Clinic and asked if we could bring him there. He went from reading at a third-grade to a fifth-grade level in just one semester. That did it for me.

I thought that if I could touch a life, like my brother’s was touched, well, I wanted to do that.

Stephen continued to struggle and applied to Niagara University, but didn’t get in. He did go to Niagara County Community College and applied again to NU and was accepted as a transfer student. But just two weeks later, he was killed in a motorcycle accident. That was 2008 and I still get choked up. He was such a beautiful person.

That’s why I find my work at NU so rewarding. I feel like this allows Stephen’s memory to live on.

Are you seeing such success in the few short years you’ve been in operation?

We’ve had those kinds of successes here at the Family Literacy Center. It’s such a powerful experience for the graduate students I’m training. They come to understand that strategic, targeted reading instruction will propel those kinds of results. I want them to be able to change lives, to touch others’ lives, too.

Tell me about the center.

The students are in grades kindergarten to grade eight and they come from area public schools: Niagara Wheatfield, Lewiston-Porter, Niagara Falls, Sweet Home, Williamsville, North Tonawanda and Tonawanda; and many area private schools, too.

Schools recommend them to us or they learn about us through word of mouth.

We have remedial and enrichment programs. We have 40 students serviced through our remedial program this semester – it’s one-on-one, so it’s a function of how many graduate students I have at the time.

We also have 20 coming for the book club, because we have about two to three students per graduate student for the enrichment program.

And every program we have is free. Families provide transportation to the center.

So how does this work as far as graduate students earning credit?

All of our programs are aligned with a graduate course. The class meets once a week, from 4:30 to 7 p.m. For the first hour of class, our graduate students work with the children, who come from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.

Then, we say goodbye to the children, and our graduate students have a powerful debriefing and take about 30 minutes to talk about individual cases, working through issues.

We problem-solve and work as a team. Then the last hour is spent with me providing model instructional techniques, based on the issues that came up through the debriefing.

How many different programs does the center offer?

We currently have four: primary remediation, intermediate remediation, our children’s book club, which is offered in the spring, and our clinical practicum, which is the final course of our program. In the fall, we offer a writer’s studio.

In the summer, we offer a PEP camp, a primary enrichment program, for students just in Niagara Falls schools. The pre-service teachers involved in the graduate program leading to certification work with these primary-age students, while my graduate students provide literacy coaching support.

This is an innovative model that my colleague, Dr. MaryEllen Bardsley, and I, have presented nationally. This is for college graduates who may have a degree in business, for example, and then decide to go into teaching. This leads to a master’s degree in education and initial teacher certification.

To what do you owe the success of the program for teachers?

Those who receive this certification as a literacy specialist may work as reading specialists in school districts or as literacy coaches for teachers. This is not just about theory, but they have to enact it in practice.

We looked at all of the literacy education courses offered at Niagara and we’ve tried to embed practical experience in each course through the Family Literacy Center.

And what do the children gain?

Reading not only opens doors, but it enriches your life.

How do you battle the competition with technology for children’s attention?

I view technology as an advantage. We have to embrace it and meet the children where they’re at. If technology is such an integral part of their universe, we must figure out how to use this to our advantage. It can be a really powerful resource.


To learn more, visit:, contact McGrath at 286-8309, Jill Maier at 286-8306 or email

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email