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.