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There is no stronger foundation for understanding the world and getting along and ahead in it than the ability to read. No matter how bright, children who cannot read suffer from an enormous handicap in trying to decipher the mysteries of education, literature, science and entertainment. They are denied a fair understanding of what is going on around them.

And, of course, reading is best learned early.

Buffalo can be proud that notable progress has surfaced in the latest statewide reading scores. Among city third-graders, 89 percent scored high enough in the state PEP tests last May to meet or exceed New York minimum reading standards. That's a significant jump from 81 percent a year earlier. For sixth-graders, the increase was even greater, to 90 percent from 79 percent.

The scores were slightly higher than those in Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers -- Buffalo's peers as upstate "big cities." And compared with them, said Marion Canedo, head of reading in the Buffalo schools, this city has "less money per pupil, a high poverty rate and a much larger enrollment."

Virtually all of Buffalo's elementary schools showed progress in reading.

The scores indicate success for the enriched reading program evident in the past year or so under Canedo, who became director of reading in May 1996. Recognizing the problems and the emphasis on higher standards, a task force was formed to devise overall strategies. The schools revamped the philosophy and approach to incorporate more literature and real-life applications in the teaching of reading. They tightened the connection between reading and writing, and they expanded opportunities for teachers to upgrade their instructional skills.

"If there's a single thing that's making this work," Canedo says, "it's focus."

And what better place to put focus than reading?

More remains to be done, as a comparison with the suburbs quickly shows. In the same May PEP tests, from 95 percent to 100 percent of third- and sixth-graders in suburban districts such as Kenmore, Hamburg, Clarence and Orchard Park met or exceeded the state's minimum reading standards.

Nor are those standards all the city should hope to meet. The minimum standard for sixth-graders, for example, is only a fourth-grade reading level.

Another national test disclosed the same general picture -- progress, but much more to do. In that test, Buffalo elementary pupils did better than in earlier years and scored close to the national average. But only one in three city elementary pupils showed proficient reading skills, and only one in four was proficient in broader language skills like writing and spelling.

The city school population includes a larger proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds than the suburban schools serve. Many are from families that are hard-pressed just to get along from day to day, much less provide enriching educational experiences. Many don't speak English at home. All of that makes the job harder for educators. But after their school days are over, urban and suburban students, poor and middle-class, will compete in the same job market. The goals for all must be equally high.

The reading improvements reward the wisdom of the Buffalo Board of Education when it re-established the job of reading director a year ago. Plainly, there's more to do. But the progress is encouraging.

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