This story, originally published on February 7, 2013, explores an organization dedicated to those who are a little lost for words.
You might remember a series of commercials from the early 90s featuring adorable young children standing on stage, smiling in the spotlight and exuberantly declaring, “Hooked on Phonics worked for me!”
Sound familiar? If you’re reading this easily, you’re proficient with your phonetics, so it literally does sound familiar. The written words effortlessly translate to corresponding sounds and, therefore, to comprehensible words in your mind. If “reading is fundamental,” as other TV spots have reminded us, phonetics proficiency is even more so.
No wonder, then, that New Haven Reads—the community book bank and learning center dedicated to helping kids improve their literacy—is hooked on phonics, too. Executive Director Kirsten Levinsohn says studies confirm the intuitive notion that there’s a high correlation between phonetic aptitude and reading ability. People who have problems with the former tend to struggle with the latter.
New Haven Reads is here to help, though. “When our kids first arrive to the site,” Levinsohn explains, “we evaluate their abilities through [phonics-based educational software programs] Lexia and Explode the Code and then have them read aloud to us.” After evaluation, “we know exactly where they are and can then design a personalized program for them with their weekly tutor.” NHR’s tutors assist over 500 students on a weekly basis at the non-profit’s three locations at Bristol Street, Dixwell Avenue and Science Park.
And there are a lot more students who could use the help. For example, less than 33% of New Haven third-graders read at or above the goal in 2012, according to a Connecticut Mastery Test evaluation.
On the other hand, that’s up from about 18% in 2006, and New Haven Reads has played an important role in that improvement. Founded by the late Christine Alexander in 2001 with the endorsement of then-mayor John DeStefano Jr., New Haven Reads was formed in the wake of stunningly dismal test results declaring that only a third of New Haven’s adults were reading at or above a third-grade level. That revelation prompted city leaders to tap Alexander to wage a yearlong campaign emphasizing the importance of literacy and education.
The organization evolved to its current state—tutors, courses, the works—after a family friend asked Alexander for help on how to teach her children to read. Since then, New Haven Reads has opened two additional locations, employed hundreds of volunteer tutors to work closely with children in need and developed relationships with local teachers as well as a variety of innovative and educational programming—SAT prep classes, Summer Literacy Camp, homework help, educational clubs.
At the organization’s main hub on Bristol Street, the walls are plastered with colorful posters depicting pronouns and prepositions and lined with dozens of shelves holding thousands of books. Staff members click away at their computers, parents converse with their child’s tutors and the kids stuff as many books into their bags as they can (as of early 2013, the Harry Potter series was still the favorite). It’s a warm and welcoming environment where kids and teenagers can develop an essential life skill.
It’s a need and a process Levinsohn knows exceedingly well, not only as the Executive Director but also as a tutor herself. No matter how hopeless or difficult the situation may be, at New Haven Reads a kid can receive highly individualized support from a trained professional—something they could very well be missing in the classroom or at home.
“This is what I always say to the kids: ‘It’s not that you can’t do it—we just haven’t worked on it hard enough.’ We just keep at it. ‘Expect great things’ is my motto and I feel very strongly that these kids can, in fact, do great things—and they do.”
New Haven Reads
Main Location—45 Bristol Street, New Haven (map)
Written by Courtney McCarroll. Photograph courtesy of New Haven Reads.