Turnaround 101 Draws From Ivy Halls

Melissa Bailey PhotoAs it tries to concoct a recipe for turning around a low-performing school, Wexler/Grant has a secret ingredient: tutors like Esther Hyun from Yale. Lots of them.

Before hitting her own Jewish Latin-American writers class at Yale, Hyun (pictured) was at Wexler/Grant Wednesday reading a picture book to second-graders who need extra help. She’s a regular at the school—showing up three times a week to help out.

Hyun is one of 10 Yale students who show up every week to read with students at Wexler/Grant, a public K-8 school in its first year of a turnaround effort. The school serves 378 kids at 55 Foote St. in the Dixwell neighborhood, blocks from Yale’s campus.

Three times a week, Yale students roll out of bed in time to arrive at the school by 8 or 8:30 a.m. They stay for two hours tutoring six students, two at a time, in rigorous, half-hour sessions.

The program, called Modified Reading Recovering Intervention (MoRRI), targets “at-risk” kids who have fallen significantly behind in reading, often by one grade level or more. It aims to catch students early, in the 1st or 2nd grade, before they slip too far behind, get overwhelmed with frustration, or—in the worst case scenario—give up.

It doesn’t involve just reading to kids. It involves flash cards, magnetic letters, and other tools to break it down for kids who haven’t yet caught on to reading.

While other schools in New Haven’s district have MoRRI tutors, most lack the manpower to serve all the kids who need extra reading help. Last year, Wexler/Grant was one of only two schools citywide that was able to serve all the kids who needed MoRRI tutors, according to Claudia Merson, Yale’s director of public school partnerships. Of the 62 kids who got help, all but two showed gains. 

This year, 65 students at Wexler/Grant are getting MoRRI tutoring, thanks to tutors like Hyun.

Hyun, a senior literature major at Yale, headed to Wexler/Grant Wednesday morning while some of her classmates were asleep. She sat down at a table in Room C-1 of the elementary wing. Two 2nd-graders left their regular class to meet her there. Each tutor takes two students at a time for half an hour—a level of personal instruction kids don’t get in the classroom.

Perched on maroon plastic chairs, the students practiced reading sentences on strips of paper. They read aloud from a book they’ve been working through.

As her students read, Hyun quietly ticked with a pencil how many words they pronounced correctly—a “reading record” that the tutors will track through the rest of the year.

Then Hyun opened a new book, Pinduli by Janell Cannon, about a hyena who gets teased for having big ears. First she paged through the book to show the kids the pictures and ask what they thought would happen. Then she read the text aloud.

She paused several times to check comprehension: “How do you think Pinduli feels?”

Rojae Sims (pictured at the top of the story) said Pinduli must feel bullied because of the mean remarks about having big ears. “That’s not right.”

The half-hour session, three times a week, can make a big impact on kids’ reading, according to the program’s coordinators. Last year, MoRRI students got an average of 40 tutoring sessions from October through May, according to Yale’s Merson. First-grade students gain an average of 5.6 reading levels on the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA). Second-grade students gained an average of 3 levels.

Twelve 1st-grade students improved enough to graduate from the program in January, Merson said, making room for seven newcomers. Sixteen of the 1st-graders improved from the “basic” to the “proficient” category on the DRA by year’s end, according to the district.

Hyun, who started tutoring last school year, said she’s noticed the improvement. One student came to her reading on a kindergarten level.

“He couldn’t read anything,” said Hyun. She worked with him every week. She went to his parent-teacher conference and enlisted his mother in practicing reading sight words at home.

At a certain point, something clicked—“he shot up” in reading scores, rose four levels on the DRA, and graduated from the program.

Other kids have proved more of a struggle, like the little girl who showed up “terrified” of reading. She would sit down at the table “and just cry,” Hyun recalled. The tutors worked with her slowly, starting with non-scary poems with lots of pictures.

Hyun said she can relate to the kids. At the age of 9, her family moved to America from South Korea. Hyun didn’t know English. All she knew how to say was: “boy, girl, hello, hi and thank you.” When she was thrown into public school in North Dakota, school was “terrifying,” she recalled. She got pulled out of the classroom for extra English lessons, and learned to speak fluently after one year.

“I know how important it is” to get extra help, she said. That’s why “I find this work to be really rewarding.”

Merson said students like Hyun are paid an hourly wage, which is funded through work-study money the federal government sends to Yale. Yale began the MoRRI program at Wexler/Grant four years ago. The Class of 1951 came forward with money to support a healthy budget for school supplies and events.

Yale’s investment has doubled the number of kids at Wexler/Grant who can get extra reading help, according to Darra Meder, the certified teacher who trains and oversees the MoRRI tutors at the school. Certified teachers who get hired part-time to work with MoRRI kids take three kids at a time, or 27 per week.

Meder said while a 19-year-old student isn’t as effective as a certified teacher, they have learned a lot about different reading strategies. The Yale students get training and support from Meder and from a literacy coach. MoRRI is based on Marie Clay’s Reading Recovery program, which targets the lowest-achieving first-graders in a school.

At a nearby table, sophomore Katy Clayton (pictured) led a one-on-one lesson with a new student. She used four methods of teaching throughout the lesson: breaking words into chunks using magnetic letters, tracking how the student read a familiar book aloud, reading isolated sentences, then tackling a new book. The she sent her student home with flashcards to practice at home.

“Practice your sight cards tonight for 20 minutes,” Clayton instructed her charge.

“Twenty minutes!” the student replied with a grin. Then she took a plastic bag back to her class.

Clayton and Hyun’s lessons followed a structure that every MoRRI teacher follows. They record each lesson plans in a binder, along with notes about how it went.

Hyun said it’s been “really hard waking up in the morning,” but she finds the work rewarding. It even inspired her to join Teach for America after she graduates this May.

“The kids can’t remember my name,” she said, “but it’s OK, they come give me hugs.”

Meder said the Yale students’ input has made a big difference at an important time.

When kids are falling behind, she said, “catching them in that 1st grade is so crucial.”

Past Independent stories on Wexler/Grant:

Pressure’s On As “CMT Olympics” Begin
TFA Teacher Hits Stride—& May Leave Town
A K-8 “Turnaround” Enlists Hillhouse Seniors
At “Turnaround,” Half The Teachers Will Stay

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posted by: Brutus2011 on March 29, 2012  11:31am

Thank you, students from Yale and other colleges.

This is an example of a bottom-up collaboration approach as opposed to the NHPS top-down dictatorial approach.

Imagine if teachers, in concert with paraprofessionals and parents, collaborated by organizing older students to mentor younger kids.

Imagine if teachers, in concert with each other, had teams where student progress was closely monitored and evaluated with support of the group flowing to where it was needed.

Imagine if teachers and paras could perform their duties without looking over their shoulders for an administrator’s disapproval and lack of support for a building-wide proper learning environment.

The reason these kinds of rational, and cost-effective, collaborations are not in place is because, under the current NHPS management model, the control has to come from the top and anything else is seen as weakness and is not tolerated. There is no room for “mere” teachers or paras to bring any kind of innovation because it “threatens” the chain of command.

I will give one final example: breakfast/lunch.
Lunch is a time where adults and kids can be together and adults can show the kids that they are cared for in any number of service actions such as wiping tables, clearing trays, rolling garbage barrels, and just plain being there.

I hope you get the point.

Top down does not work—Bottom up just might.

And, it does not require any more funding—in fact, it will eliminate expensive consultants and layers of administrators.

posted by: Teachergal on March 29, 2012  12:05pm

How can a child be considered behind in reading after a year in kindergarten? As a trained reading teacher, I learned that many children are not ready to learn to read until they are 7 years old. Why not spend the first year of school working on social skills and pre reading skills and then first grade on learning how to put letters together to make sounds and words. Kindergarten should be spent on hearing and reciting nursery rhymes, rhyming, recognizing letters, etc.  This would better prepare all children for first grade. What is the rush after all.
It astounds me that we label children behind grade level upon entering first grade and this in turn only escalates as they grow older.

posted by: anonymous on March 29, 2012  12:12pm

can residents volunteer to be MORRI tutors? how?

posted by: HhE on March 29, 2012  12:14pm

Well said Brutus2011.

posted by: Ladybug on March 29, 2012  12:20pm

To quote an over used saying, “It Takes a Village”. As a kid I was below grade level on reading as well. The teacher at the time, this was in early 60’s recommended that my mother listen to me read for 10 mins. a day…It made ALL the difference! In a few months I was up beyond grade level..
What I adore @ this is not only is YALE giving back as it should, but the solutions are so simple…Not as effective as a certified teacher?? Maybe better! Let’s face it, we have seen what “experienced” teacher don’t do.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on March 29, 2012  1:27pm

Can the NHI find out what is happning at Domus.

posted by: RichTherrn on March 29, 2012  7:21pm

You are wrong.
The MORRI program (as the article indicates) is a research based intervention program designed by the district, implemented and evaluated by the district and a key part of the district improvement plan, as first described in 2008. Yale happens to be helping with tutors for this school.
The district reading department staff, all the tutors, and teachers/administrators across the district have worked hard on this program and deserve kudos on the success.
Board of Ed Refines Goals for 2011

posted by: Josiah Brown on March 29, 2012  7:24pm

As “Brutus2011” suggests, collaboration is important.  Tutors and mentors can play an important role supporting the professional work of teachers, as well as students and their families.

“Anonymous” generously asks about opportunities to volunteer as a tutor.  While unsure about how the MoRRI program at Wexler-Grant specifically might respond, I can provide some general information.

Beyond the encouraging partnership of the teachers and tutors with students at Wexler-Grant, there is—for example—the volunteering of tutors at several New Haven public schools through the Jewish Coalition for Literacy.  (Brenda Brenner is the contact for the JCL at the Jewish Federation: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).)

There is also New Haven Reads, which runs the Book Bank, with free books in English and Spanish for teachers, students, and families.  New Haven Reads facilitates (and provides training for) tutoring of nearly 600 school-age students after school at four sites every week, with the help of about 375 tutors.  More than 200 students are on the waitlist for tutoring services.  You can volunteer by contacting .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 203-752-1923.

Regarding adult literacy, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven (203-776-5899 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)) is always seeking more volunteer tutors—while encouraging adult learners to use its services. 

English as a Second Language courses are available from Literacy Volunteers and from Junta for Progressive Action, in cooperation with New Haven Adult Education.  The New Haven Public Library has various related programs, too.

The Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven is an all-volunteer, non-profit umbrella organization that helps such groups to share information.  Its mission is to promote, support, and advance literacy in the region.  The Coalition aims to communicate and convene to develop awareness of literacy-related challenges and ways to address those challenges—including by attracting additional volunteers.  The Coalition’s website (much of it with a Spanish translation) is at:

The LiteracyEveryday site features four main portals through which visitors may wish to get involved: “Get Help”; “Volunteer”; “Donate”; and “Learn More.”  The website also includes a calendar and archive for News/Events and a list of Resources.  There is a Blog, Facebook page, and Twitter feed, as well as a link to YouTube public service announcements.

Contact: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

posted by: Brutus2011 on March 30, 2012  10:39am

Rather than reply to “RichThrrn,” I would like to request that all readers go to the link he provided at:


Reading this 2008 article, and especially the comments, is astonishing in light of the political battle over ed reform with Senate Bill 24, etc.

The comments by “Fix The Schools” and teachers are instructive as to deciphering what is really going on.

Thank you again, “RichThrrn,” you continue to make my point for me.

And, before you bristle please know that I count among your colleagues one of the finest administrators I have and probably will ever know—clone this person!

And, I wonder if “Fix The Schools” has left the area, or if he/she is now posting under “Jeff Klaus?” Either way, some of what “Fix The Schools” posted in the linked article’s commentary is, in my opinion, succinctly accurate—all expressed 4 years ago.

The more things change, the more things stay the same it seems.

posted by: Brutus2011 on March 30, 2012  2:23pm

Try this link:

Board of Ed Refines Goals for 2011

posted by: Blue on March 30, 2012  9:24pm

The district had to research to learn that providing struggling readers with extra 1:1/small group instruction from a tutor would be beneficial intervention?  Seems like common sense to me.