In light of the Connecticut General Assembly’s passage of a new state budget last week, New Haven Reads, a local nonprofit that works to improve children’s literacy, is uncertain of the status of its state funding.
Last year, New Haven Reads, which tutors and provides books for local children, received $50,000 in state funding. But now, administrators of the program question whether they will receive any money at all. On Oct. 26, the state House and Senate both passed a veto-proof bipartisan budget that closes the state’s $3.5 billion fiscal gap, in part by cutting aid to nonprofit programs. And on Tuesday, Gov. Dannel Malloy signed most of that budget into law. New Haven Reads will likely face tough decisions once it knows the full details, according to Kirsten Levinsohn, the organization’s executive director.
“We haven’t seen details yet, and we don’t know when we will see details,” said Heather Calabrese, president of the organization’s board. “But we are anticipating that we will be significantly impacted, and if we receive state funding at all, it will be significantly cut.”
New Haven Reads is a critical literacy program that provides one-on-one tutoring to over 500 children in the New Haven area. The program also runs a book bank that has over 130,000 books and organizes over 100 field trips annually.
Levinsohn said that, since its founding in 2001, the organization has grown significantly, a testament to its success in improving children’s reading abilities and to the city’s increasing demand for such programs.
Levinsohn added that last year, within just six months of testing second and third graders who attend the program, 75 percent of students improved their reading level by at least one grade. She emphasized that this was by no means “predetermined,” since the organization only takes students who are performing under grade level.
Social bonds formed between tutors and students are an integral part of New Haven Reads, Levinsohn said.
“The one-on-one nature of the program also enables strong bonds to grow between the tutor and the child,” she said. “That’s not something we can measure, but we know anecdotally that that is a big factor in our success.”
Losing state funding would force the organization to grapple with difficult questions about how to allocate remaining funds. The organization has decided to not tackle these questions until the fiscal specifics become more clear, as the organization still has some reserve funding, Levinsohn said. Still, the organization has had some preliminary discussions — Levinsohn said that the board had introduced the idea of cutting funds for healthy snacks for students but could not agree to it.
“We haven’t had the concrete conversations about whether we would need to reduce the number of children we serve or reduce the number of centers we have,” Calabrese said. “But there are probably some hard decisions ahead.”
Uncertainty extends beyond the potential loss of direct state funding, as city funding for the organization is also being evaluated in light of the state budget’s passage. Levinsohn said that, last year, the organization received $29,500 from a Community Development Block Grant and $5,000 from the Youth Violence Prevention Grant — both federal grants distributed by the city. It also received $25,000 from Title One funds, federal money disbursed by New Haven Public Schools. Levinsohn worries that the state budget will cause the city and New Haven Public Schools to redistribute their current funding, possibly to the detriment of her organization.
It is still unclear whether a cut to state funding would force New Haven Reads to respond with a drastic reduction in its budget. In the 2016-17 budget, the organization’s state funding dropped from $80,000 to $50,000. But donations compensated for this loss: That year, the organization received a $15,000 anonymous challenge donation that it was able to match.
Government grants provided only 18 percent of the New Haven Reads budget two years ago, when the organization received $80,000. Donations and fundraisers contribute to 40 percent of the organization’s over $700,000 annual budget, according to Levinsohn. Included in the rest of its budget is nongovernment grants and the free rent and utilities that Yale provides for the organization at three of their four locations.
Last week, New Haven Reads hosted its largest yearly fundraiser, its sixth-annual Spelling Bee, at the Zhang Auditorium at the Yale School of Management. The fundraiser likely raised around $30,000, according to Fiona Bradford, assistant director of New Haven Reads.
Levinsohn said the organization is “playing the waiting game” until the board knows enough specifics about state funding to consider major reconstruction of its budget. Until then, administrators are trying to advocate for their organization.
The organization is applying for new grants, meeting with people who already donate significantly and bringing in new donors “at every level,” according to Levinsohn. In addition, the organization is in communication with officials in the New Haven Public Schools system to see if there are any opportunities for an increase in funding or any other grant opportunities.
“I am determined that we don’t have to close a site,” Levinsohn said.
Calabrese praised the organization’s strong relationship with New Haven’s delegation in Hartford, saying the organization is “fortunate” to have State Senator Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven serving on its board.
Calabrese also noted the strong historic relationship between Yale and New Haven Reads. Many of the organization’s tutors and donors are affiliated with the University — which Calabrese attributes to the fact that the organization was founded by Christine Alexander, the late wife of Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander ’65.
Meghana Mysore ’20, a staff reporter for the News who currently tutors at New Haven Reads and worked with the organization this past summer as a Yale president’s public service fellow, praised the organization’s impact on the community.
“The fact that the most tutors are tutoring the same students every single week really helps to foster that bond,” Mysore said. “You can know your student beyond doing [reading exercises] each hour.”
She also spoke of the long-term effects of the relationships fostered at New Haven Reads. Several of the tutors she works with used to be students in the program. For many students, Mysore said, New Haven Reads becomes a sort of “home.”
“[New Haven Reads] becomes a place [students] know they can go to and see the same people, the same tutors, and have a sense of stability,” Mysore said. “It’s more than just a momentary tutoring system for kids to learn how to read.”
Isabel Bysiewicz | firstname.lastname@example.org