Harp Enlists Help To Boost Reading

Allan Appel Photo Mayor Toni Harp is getting some help to get New Haven kids reading.

She has put together a task force with 39, count ‘em, reading teachers, scientists, psychologists, literacy coaches, and activists at all levels from pre-K to college.

She calls it her “blue-ribbon commission” on reading. Its aim: to see what’s going right and what’s going wrong within the school system’s current plan to innovate, pread best practices and make the Elm City the reading-est city around.

The mayor introduced her commissioners (although not all the 39 were in attendance) at a press conference Tuesday on the second floor of City Hall.

Forming the commission was one of the points in the ten-point plan Harp released for improving schools shortly after she, not without some controversy, became president of the Board of Education.

“We’re zeroing in on reading because it’s the foundation of learning,” she said in her opening remarks and after introducing the co-chairs of the commission, Wendy Samberg and Jerry Poole.

Samberg, who used to be head of the citywide parent-teacher organization, now designs alternative instructional programs for students working their way toward college-level courses at Gateway Community College.

Poole is retired and a community activist in the West River neighborhood. In taking on the co-chair responsibility, Poole said, he had done a lot of research about the sources of violence in neighborhoods like his own. “It all points back to poor reading skills of the youngsters in my neighborhood,” he said.

Other members include researchers like linguistics professor Kenneth R. Pugh, who is president and director of research at Haskins Laboratories; Allyx Schiavone, executive director of the Friends Center for Children in Fair Haven Heights; Fred Acquavita, retired head of the St. Thomas School;  New Haven Free Public Library Director, Martha Brogan; Madison-based R.J. Julia Book Store owner Roxanne Coady who is also head of Read To Grow, a non-profit that places books with the families of newborns; Tara Cass, principal of the Nathan Hale School on the East Shore; Jennifer Wells Jackson, a literacy coach at the Bishop Woods School in Quinnipiac Meadows neighborhood; and Jeff Klaus, the state regional president for Webster Bank.

For the full roster of commission members and their affiliations, click here.

The mayor was at pains to point out that the commission’s mandate is to work with the Board of Ed to help identify and respond to gaps in reading curriculum and instruction at all levels and to locate and spread “best practices.”

“I expect the commission to work with” schools Superintendent Garth Harries, Harp said. “This is not a new layer of oversight but is working in step with the superintendent of the Board of Ed.”

Several of of the commission members said their interest to serve—they are all volunteers—derived from how they themselves have hailed from immigrant families with few English-literate members. R.J. Julia founder Roxanne Coady recalled how her family members learned to read by deciphering the New York Post together.

If there was tension in the room Tuesday, it derived from how the many experts and organizations would interface with the Board of Ed and achieve the commison’s aims, which include, for starters, producing an initial report as early as this spring.

Nathan Hale Principal Cass offered a cautionary note: “I’m making sure we don’t throw the baby out with the new bathwater. Let’s build on what we already have,” she said, citing the many initiatives throughout the city and school system already ongoing.

“There are lots of organizations here that do great work. Let’s keep the focus on the kids,” Samberg added.

Why such a big number of commissioners?

The mayor responded that getting all kids citywide to read—and understand the meaning of what they’re reading on grade level—is “a big challenge” that requires big ideas.

The next step is for an initial meeting to be set up to divide the large group into six subcommittees: early childhood, grade level reading, special ed, adult reading, second-language learners, and involvement of parents and community.

That work, and the ongoing work of the commission, is to be staffed by Mendi Blue, who runs the mayor’s office of policy development.

The mayor said that she expects the commission to be in business for about a year or a year and a half and to produce a final report. Innovations, good ideas, new approaches, improvements, and best practices agreed upon won’t necessarily have to wait until a report but well may be implemented along the way, added Harries.

Member Jeff Klaus called the launch of the commission a profound moment for the city. “This [the crisis in reading] is truly a civil rights issue; it’s more than that, it’s a moral imperative, ” he said, to applause.

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posted by: NHPS Teacher on November 25, 2015  9:20am

What do Imma, Garth, Bartlett, and AF husband Jeff Klaus know about TEACHING reading?!  What a crew. 

Again - Mayor Harp - you show little to no interest in collaborating with teachers, and obsessed with assembling echo chambers of ‘important’ people that are incapable of working with New Haven children.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 25, 2015  10:11am

Poole is retired and a community activist in the West River neighborhood. In taking on the co-chair responsibility, Poole said, he had done a lot of research about the sources of violence in neighborhoods like his own. “It all points back to poor reading skills of the youngsters in my neighborhood,” he said.

You also forgot the vicious cycle of Unemployment and Poverty. Also we must Blame sell out Judas Goat Leaders and Politicians.


Member Jeff Klaus called the launch of the commission a profound moment for the city. “This [the crisis in reading] is truly a civil rights issue; it’s more than that, it’s a moral imperative, ” he said, to applause.


Give me a break.This is the same Jeff Klaus AKA FIX the schools Anti Public School Teachers and Public School Teachers unions.He is Pro Charter Schools.You see the true issue is not civil rights.The true issue like Malcolm X said is Human rights and Black Nationalism which would give people of color control the politics and the economy in their communities.The people in the above are hand pick leaders by the machine.How come the people was not inform about this new commission?


My Bad I forgot.The crooked Bankers and Hedge Funders put people in poverty.Even Obama said this.

Obama targets hedge funds in personal remarks on poverty, race


President Barack Obama addressed U.S. struggles with class and race in personal terms on Tuesday and renewed his call to close tax loopholes enjoyed by wealthy hedge fund managers as a way to reduce poverty among Americans.

“The top 25 hedge fund managers made more than all the kindergarten teachers in the country,” Obama said at a panel discussion on poverty at Georgetown University. He advocated for a higher tax rate on the fees that hedge fund managers collect

posted by: Dwightstreeter on November 25, 2015  2:56pm

Three-fifths: please run for mayor in 2 years and bring up all the issues you write about.
Teachers cannot remedy the social ills of racism, poverty, over-worked and under-employed parents and the stress of living in a maybe dangerous neighborhood. .
All the posturing around charter schools (an expensive scam), invasive, punitive and useless testing (big bucks for test makers; punishment for poor schools) and commissions and panels that only benefit the educational establishment are beginning to be recognized for the wasted time and money they generate.
All this public relations will not move the systemic problems that fall under income inequality.
What’s new and different is that the white middle class has been affected.
Where is the outrage, people?
Please, three-fifths, run and get $$ from the Democracy Fund.
I’m sure Wendy1 will offer to be your campaign manager.
We need new voices and ideas. Do not look to the established parties to help you.
Maybe the Guilty Party can be revived.

posted by: educated parent on November 25, 2015  3:24pm

A blue ribbon commission? “Its aim: to see what’s going right and what’s going wrong within the school system’s current plan to innovate, ensure best practices and make the Elm City the reading-est city around.”

The current plan in reading is innovative, ensures best practices and meets the rigor placed upon students. Reading and Writing Workshop is utilized in districts across the nation- it’s practice is research based with significant outcomes. Visit Bethany/Woodbridge, Ridgefield, Darien, and Westport etc. and watch the “Reading Plan” unfold. Looks and sounds similar to NHPS Literacy Plan. Are we saying our children should not receive the instruction that their counterparts receive?? We would not want to water down the learning experience because the adults employed by this commission believe our children cannot learn in the rich literacy environments provided to others. 

It is true that all institutions will grow and be pushed when working collaboratively with stakeholders. The key is working with- not looking for the places we can stand on the backs of families and children to pontificate.

posted by: nhteach on November 25, 2015  4:09pm

As a New Haven elementary ed teacher, I just hope that this group realizes the importance of integrating the content areas into reading instruction. The lack of specific content, to me (and researchers that include Daniel Willingham), is the most crucial element missing from reading instruction in New Haven. However, what are the chances anyone will actually ask the teachers what they think…