Under a blanket of light snow, local nonprofit New Haven Reads celebrated the opening of a new location in East Rock Friday.
The 2,000-square-foot Willow Street location of New Haven Reads, which will officially open for business on April 4, is the nonprofit’s fourth site in the city and its first in the East Rock neighborhood. Founded in 2001, New Haven Reads is devoted to improving literacy among the city’s youth, and serves just over 500 students per week across all its locations. New Haven Reads Executive Director Kirsten Levinsohn said she hopes the new location — just across from the East Rock Community Magnet School and within half a mile of the Fair Haven neighborhood — will help the organization spread literacy to the entire city. The new location will be made possible through funding from the state of Connecticut, which Levinsohn said has promised $160,000 over the next two years to cover operational costs.
“We wanted to expand out of the Science Park area, out of Newhallville and Dixwell,” Levinsohn said at the ribbon-cutting event. “The proximity to Fair Haven — that, we feel, was an underserved community.”
New Haven Reads anticipates that the new location will eventually serve roughly 150 students through one-on-one tutoring. Levinsohn said this increase will go a long way toward reducing the waitlist for tutoring through the organization, which often includes 200 names due to a lack of facilities.
Mayor Toni Harp, who has often called for New Haven to become “the city that reads,” praised the opening of the new location. Currently, only 29 percent of students in grades three to 11 are reading at or above grade level.
“We all recognize, in the world we live in, that reading is a fundamental skill,” Harp said. “If you don’t have good reading skills, then you can’t function in the world we live in. So I think it’s really important that we do all we can to help our kids read.”
The new facility will house both one-on-one tutoring and an after-school program for pre-kindergarten and kindergartners starting this fall.
State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, who identified as a “serial reader” whose life was changed by a book on the Civil Rights movement, said the work of New Haven Reads extends beyond reading skills.
“What New Haven Reads does is not only on the issue of reading, but it builds a connection with an adult who can be a mentor for them,” he said.
Similarly, Levinsohn said tutors can be “cheerleaders” for their students. She said the one-on-one relationship between tutor and student is crucial to New Haven Reads’ methods. Through this type of tutoring, she said, the organization can personalize its approach for each individual student and ensure that they receive effective tutoring.
Harp and Winfield noted that encouraging reading among children can sometimes be difficult. Winfield, a New Haven Reads board member who said his own child often shies away from reading, said he thinks children should be allowed to read whatever they want. Even comic books, Winfield said, can help children develop the reading skills that will allow them to read more complex books later.
Harp added that reading is often tied to public health, as many children have an undiagnosed need for glasses, and reading without glasses strains their eyes, which often discourages students from reading.
The organization receives funding from a variety of sources. In fiscal year 2015, contributions made up just under half of New Haven Reads’ revenue. This year, Levinsohn said, the organization receives funding from a federal youth violence prevention grant that the city won last year.
Though budget cuts in Hartford have ravaged funding for nonprofits and raised concerns about future revenue streams, state legislators at the event said New Haven Reads does the type of work that deserves funding.
“It’s a tough fiscal year, but programs like this work,” said state Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, whose son attends kindergarten across the street at the East Rock Community Magnet School. “These are the types of programs that we’re going to invest in in the future.”
New Haven Reads distributed 130,000 books around the Elm City in 2015.