As if a childhood storybook character had sprung alive and traveled to the Elm City, Clifford the Big Red Dog made an appearance at City Hall Wednesday afternoon.
The costumed dog, a well-known figure in children’s books, stood next to Mayor Toni Harp during her press conference announcing a neighborhood canvass this coming Saturday to improve children’s literacy across the city. New Haven volunteers will walk from door to door in the city’s Newhallville neighborhood, distributing books and informational pamphlets about literacy resources. The program is the Elm City’s version of President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which aims to break down community barriers through personal interactions, according to Harp.
“We know from experience that neighborhood canvassing works because neighbors feel [closer] after being reached person to person,” Harp said at the press conference.
Scholastic Corporation, a children’s publishing company, and New Haven Reads, a nonprofit that aims to increase community literacy by offering free books and tutoring, have donated roughly 700 books for the upcoming event this weekend, said Jason Bartlett, the director of youth services for New Haven. Working with New Haven Public Schools, City Hall identified some 300 families to whom they would like to distribute the books, hoping to increase this canvas’s impact. During past canvasses, City Hall has only been able to reach out to around 150 families, Bartlett added.
Volunteers will meet at Lincoln-Bassett Elementary School at 9 a.m. on Saturday and will begin canvassing shortly after Harp addresses the crowd at 10 a.m.
The event on Saturday is the sixth time in the past year the city has formally organized a neighborhood canvas. Following a slew of shootings in spring 2014, Harp called a neighborhood meeting at which participants resolved to knock on doors and engage in anti-violence messages, Bartlett told the News.
These neighborhood canvasses have focused on more than just violence prevention. Volunteers have also devoted time to informing residents of educational resources, Bartlett added. These initiatives caught the attention of Obama, who commended Harp’s neighborhood outreach in a January 2015 speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
“We’re working with Newhallville and Byrne grants to make Newhallville a vibrant and safe community. This is very much about bringing our community together,” Bartlett said at the press conference. “This is the first time we are addressing literacy.”
The canvas on Saturday seeks to help narrow Connecticut’s literacy gap by focusing on a neighborhood in New Haven with historically low student literacy rates. In 2013, 57 percent of Connecticut fourth graders tested below proficient, according to a report released by the Kids Count Data Center — a nonprofit that collects and publishes data on students across the U.S. The report also found that, of those who were found to be below proficient in their reading ability, around half of those students showed reading skills lower than the most basic standards.
Tony Nelson, the northeast coordinator of Fathers In Education, a national non-profit aiming to get fathers involved in improving childhood literacy, said the percent of students testing below proficiency in Connecticut is much higher for African-American students. He added that a strong correlation exists between fourth grade reading levels and future high school graduation and incarceration rates.
“In previous years only around 40 percent of students are on track to their personal goals,” New Haven Public Schools superintendent Garth Harries ’95 said. “Now it is around 60 percent after the last few years, but it is only 60 percent.”
In addition to books and information about literacy resources, the volunteers will also distribute pamphlets discouraging bullying and poor school attendance. City Librarian Martha Brogan added that she would love to slip a few library card applications into each packet.