Charlotte Hughes, Contributing Reporter

Last school year, 84 percent of third graders in New Haven public schools read below their grade level, according to district reading assessment data

In a citywide outcry, teachers, officials, community members and clergy demanded answers — and a plan. School officials presented their new strategy to the Education Committee of the Board of Alders on Wednesday night, soliciting feedback and answering questions from the alders. 

“Many people have had conversations about our test scores,” said Keisha Redd-Hannans, the New Haven Public Schools assistant superintendent for instructional leadership. “What some may see as a problem we see as an opportunity to help students realize their full potential and for the whole community to galvanize together.”

The new reading plan includes five points — a comprehensive core program, systems of assessment for grades pre-K through 12 including process monitoring, professional development, partnerships with parents and an intervention plan.

The comprehensive core program includes seven points of instruction: oral language, phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, letter name fluency and reading comprehension. 

Before, teacher trainings and reading programs were inconsistent throughout the district. The district will use one phonics-based reading program now, as opposed to two before. 

At the meeting, the NHPS officials all emphasized that professional development, or training teachers adequately, would be key to improving reading scores.  

“If teachers improve their quality of instruction, the outcomes for students will automatically improve,” Redd-Hannans said. “Students are acclimated to being in school… We need to shift our focus on instruction.”

But debate surrounds what the contents of this reading instruction should be — balanced literacy instruction or structured literacy instruction. 

Balanced literacy teaching focuses on stories, themes and the association of words with pictures and sounds. On the other hand, structured literacy teaching focuses on phonics, or sounding out letters and words, and grammar and syntax. 

New Haven’s public schools primarily use “balanced literacy” approaches, Alder Sarah Miller told the News.

Lynn Brantley, the supervisor of literacy for New Haven Public Schools, recalled one experience helping a child read through a “balanced literacy” method. When the student found a connection with a book, “The Boy in the Black Suit,” he began reading with more fluency.

However, advocates and researchers nationwide have embraced the more research-backed structured literacy approach to reading. 

In turn, Connecticut passed a “Right to Read” measure in 2021 that mandated school districts switch to structured literacy curriculums by July 1, 2023. Meanwhile, wide reading gaps remain in the state, especially for students from marginalized backgrounds. In 2019, the Nation’s Report Card found a 33 percentage point gap in reading proficiency between white and Black and Hispanic fourth graders. 

At the Wednesday meeting, Alder Sarah Miller, an advocate for the structured literacy approach, was concerned that the school district’s plan did not seem to include “broad, deep systematic professional development” in teaching phonics. 

Miller said that as a child, she learned to read through the balanced literacy method. But balanced literacy instruction did not work for her sister. And Miller said that the school reading crisis was in part due to this lack of structured literacy instruction. 

“Most kids need that explicit instruction, and we’ve been providing it a little bit, but we haven’t been providing explicit instruction in all the elements of language for a very long time,” Miller said. “That is a big part of why our literacy outcomes overall are so atrocious.”

Leslie Blatteau, the president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, expressed optimism about the district using one standard program for phonics instruction under this new reading plan in an interview with the News after the meeting. 

However, it is unclear overall how much this new “enhanced reading plan” will emphasize structured reading, and how much of a curricular change it will cause, Miller told the News. 

The alders at the Wednesday night meeting also raised concerns about the district’s plans to provide more professional development for teachers, as a part of their attempt to raise reading scores. 

Dr. Iline Tracey, the New Haven Public Schools superintendent, said that training needed to — and would — shift to the needs of teachers. 

Alders asked how that would happen.

“I know professional development is important,” said Alder Sal Punzo, a retired New Haven Public Schools principal. “But it’s an hour there, two hours there. The real support happens inside the building. We have to be realistic about that.”

And Alder Avshalom-Smith raised questions about how professional development would happen, amid a teacher shortage in New Haven and the nation. 

Tracey said that the nationwide shortage was out of the district’s control. 

“I do continue to worry about the actual implementation of these things,” Blatteau said. “The ongoing kind of collaboration that’s necessary, and time for professional development that’s necessary, we can’t have that because of underfunded education and ongoing staff issues. It’s going to be hard to implement this plan.”

The New Haven Public School District includes almost 19,000 children. 

Charlotte Hughes reports on climate and environmental issues in New Haven. Originally from Columbia, South Carolina, she is a freshman in Branford College majoring in English.