The challenge is enormous.
More than half the youngsters entering prekindergarten classes in Buffalo already have language deficiencies and are at risk of illiteracy. By eighth grade, nearly three of every four are reading below grade level.
"This is a major, major problem in Buffalo," Mayor Byron W. Brown said Friday at a faith-based literacy forum at Bethel AME Church, 1525 Michigan Ave. "This has got to be a communitywide effort. Only if we do that will we be able to be successful."
Participants at the forum saw hopeful signs. For example:
* The Buffalo Public Schools and the Buffalo Teachers Federation this week reached an agreement that will add federally funded Reading First programs to eight city schools. Students there will have 90-minute periods of English, 60 minutes of math and the assistance of a reading coach.
* Buffalo Reads, a community literacy group, is offering assistance to area day care centers to strengthen the educational components of their programs.
* The adult education department of the Buffalo schools has begun working with area businesses to teach their employees needed workplace skills.
* The summer reading program that Brown sponsored as a state senator will be continued now that he is mayor.
Margaret Doughty, a literacy consultant who has worked with other cities, gave Buffalo high marks for coordinating and focusing its efforts.
"You're doing a great job," she told about 50 participants. "It's something that's very, very challenging. Buffalo is going to succeed."
The cost of failure will be more jails, higher public assistance and a city crushed by global competition, speakers said. "If we can't read, folks, we're going to get left behind," said Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams.