Ryan Chiao

New Haven Reads has recently expanded its tutoring opportunities with new Saturday time slots for Elm City student in hopes of cutting its waitlist for teaching services.

The local nonprofit operates as a book bank for New Haven families. It provides after-school tutoring in reading and offers educational family support, according to its website. New Haven Reads has four locations in the Elm City: Dixwell, Science Park, Willow Street and its headquarters on Bristol Street. Thanks to a new grant from the Branford-based Seedlings Foundation, it now offers a new Saturday tutoring session for children at its 85 Willow St. site in the hopes of meeting more demand. Now, according to Executive Director Kirsten Levinsohn, the challenge is to find more volunteer tutors who can work with students on Saturdays.

“Karen Pritzker [the head of Seedlings] had come out for a visit … and she heard about how our waitlist at the time was 217 children, and she asked if there was a way to take more children off the waitlist,” Levinsohn told the News in an interview. “We were thinking about opening one of our sites on a Saturday — we already have our Bristol Street site open on Saturday, but another site, our Willow Street site seemed like a good place to try it as well. We just needed funding to make that happen.”

New Haven Reads was founded in 2001 by the late Christine Alexander, a leader in New Haven’s literacy movement and the wife of former Yale Vice President of New Haven and State Affairs and Campus Development Bruce Alexander ’65. Since then, the literacy organization has helped over 3,250 Elm City students, distributed almost 2 million free books in the community and hosted over 2,000 volunteers. New Haven Reads started out as a book bank with the goal of reducing so-called “book deserts” in the Elm City and encouraging low-income families to start their own book collections at home.

Now, the organization runs tutoring programs for local students who are reading below grade level. It also has a specific program for children in kindergarten and prekindergarten. According to Levinsohn, 100 percent of the nonprofit’s tutees improved their reading skills over the past year — New Haven Reads tests students each fall and spring to understand overall trends in its teaching and target areas of growth for individuals.

“Since [its founding], with continued Yale support, New Haven Reads has grown from a single site to a program serving hundreds of families in multiple sites in New Haven,” Karen King, community relations associate at Yale’s office of New Haven and State Affairs, told the News in an email. “Throughout its history, members of the Yale community have been intrinsically involved as year-round tutors, and many have served as active team members for its annual Spelling Bee fundraiser.”

However, New Haven Reads can only take so many children; it has a waitlist over one-third as long as its current roster of students in the tutoring program.

The new grant from the Seedlings Foundation aimed to cut down this waitlist by covering some of the operational costs of opening a second location on Saturdays. According to Jessica Markelon, the assistant site director for the Willow Street location, 36 to 50 more students will get off the waitlist and work with tutors during the Saturday timeframe. At the moment, New Haven Reads is seeing between seven and 12 students an hour on Saturdays, but it is aiming to expand to 18 students an hour, according to Levinsohn. Another goal is to add an hour on Saturdays to further expand access.

Tahnesha Bonner, the mother of a high school student in the Saturday tutoring program, said that her son initially “was reluctant to give up his Saturday morning”, but now he is “looking forward” to his sessions with his tutor. The family was only accepted off of the waitlist three weeks ago and Bonner says she is already seeing improvements in her son’s literacy skills.

Grants like this one represent 42 percent of the organization’s annual operating budget of $1 million. About 51 percent of the budget comes from individual donations. Yale provides the financial backing for rent and utilities at three out of the four of New Haven Reads’ locations. Like many Connecticut nonprofits, New Haven Reads has been hit hard by reductions in state funding for community organizations in recent years as Connecticut struggles with restoring pre-recession levels of revenue generation.

“I picked up tutoring on Thursdays with my first kid, and I thought it was absolutely amazing, I love what New Haven Reads does,” volunteer tutor and former development assistant RaQuasia Smith told the News in an interview. “I see the impact that it makes, especially on these young children who just don’t have the resources in order for them to successfully improve their literacy skills. So, I heard that Willow Street was opening on Saturday and I jumped on the opportunity.”

The next step for New Haven Reads is to find volunteer tutors to fill the new Saturday hours. According to Levinsohn, the nonprofit is trying to find tutors that demographically represent the young people who come in.

All of the New Haven Reads programs are offered free of charge to participants and their families.

 

Jose Davila IV | jose.davilaiv@yale.edu