A Reading Locomotive Turns 15

A celebrated literacy not-for-profit founded in a New Haven garage is celebrating its 15th birthday—and working to ensure at least 15 more years.

That organization is New Haven Reads, a literacy-based not-for-profit that collects books and offers after-school and Saturday tutoring to New Haven kids in phonics and reading. Thursday evening it kicked off its 15th year with a celebration at Yale’s Sterling Library, where several speakers lauded the organization for its work—but warned that there is a lot of work yet to be done, and staying open is about to get much harder. About 100 board members, staff, longtime volunteers and alumni attended.

Founded by the late Christine Alexander in 2001, New Haven Reads has grown from a book pile in Alexander’s garage to a four-site operation, with locations in Dixwell, East Rock, and Science Park. To date, it has tutored and graduated 3500 students and collected 1,600,000 books. Hundreds of those go to students each month, when they come in for field trips or tutoring sessions and are allowed to take up to five home.

The celebration of those numbers—and the 400-some tutees the organization looks after right now—was contagious as attendees crowded into the library’s side room to watch a slideshow and video, and listen to speakers. Declaring March 30 a citywide “New Haven Reads Day,” Mayor Toni Harp pledged to keep New Haven “the city that reads,” noting that she saw Alexander’s memory living on “with each and every book mastered” by a student in the organization.

So too did New Haven Reads Executive Director Kirsten Levinsohn, noting the transformation in some of the students—and volunteers working with them—as their comprehension grew week by week.

Speakers also warned of choppy seas ahead. Some 70 percent of third graders in New Haven still read below grade level, said Levinsohn—and funds to help them may be shrinking. In the past year, New Haven Reads has lost a $30,000 chunk of a two-year grant that was promised in the state’s last budget year. (It was supposed to be $80,000 each year; the New Haven delegation secured $50,000 of that funding for New Haven Reads this year but the rest was reappropriated.)

The organization also isn’t sure if $120,000 that usually comes from Youth Violence Prevention, Community Development Block Grant funding, and Title I school funding—all federal grant programs—will come through under the new administration. And the program’s waitlist is still at 150 students, and shows no sign of shrinking.

“Christine Alexander would be proud,” said Stacy Spell, a program manager with Project Longevity who has also been a New Haven Reads tutor for over 10 years. “But we haven’t reached the summit yet and there are still great gains to be made.”

Gains that tutors like Mi-Ch-El West, Sally Thach, and Jailene Garzon are working towards with their students—and feel a personal connection to. All alumni of the program, the three have returned to the organization, ready to roll up their sleeves with young students of their own. West, a sophomore at Western Connecticut State University studying social work and community health, said he can remember the boost of confidence he got from new reading comprehension skills as a third grader, and wants to pass that on to as many new students as he can. Because he’s no longer in New Haven during the week, he tutors when he’s home for a vacation, or for the summer. Garzon, a student in graphic design at Gateway Community College, works with a student who has trouble with reading. As someone who began as a second-language learner, she said it’s a way for her to give back to the community that so nurtured her.

“It’s just really cool,” said Thach, who started at New Haven Reads when she was four, and struggling with English skills outside of her Chinese-speaking household. Currently working with a first and third grader, she recalled a moment earlier this month when she watched a concept click in her student’s head. The two had been going over words that had vowel blends—oe, for instance—and the student had been tripping over the words. Then Thach had tried explaining that often, those blends just sounded like the first letter. Like toe—it just sounded like t, plus the letter o. She saw a light go. 

“That feeling—it’s the coolest,” she said. 

Independent reporter Lucy Gellman volunteers as a New Haven Reads tutor.

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