Sandy Fores, Melba Flores, Melba Perez, and Regina Starolis. Lucy Gellman Photos.
When Melba Flores walked into New Haven Reads for the first time, she hated books. It was the early 2000s, and Flores was in second grade and struggling with reading. She had no idea that Charlotte’s Web and a few hours of tutoring each week were about to change her life.
Two decades later, she’s a college graduate, early childhood educator, and budding writer. She doesn’t think any of those would have happened without a literary locomotive on Bristol Street.
Wednesday night, Flores was one of 250 attendees at “One For The Books,” a celebration of New Haven Reads’ 20th anniversary held at Bear’s Smokehouse and Barbecue on James Street. Since 2003, the literacy-focused, volunteer-fueled organization has worked with over 7,000 young readers in New Haven, and distributed over 2.5 million books. It currently serves 370 students, with an additional 150 on a waitlist.
In a text message Thursday, Executive Director Kirsten Levinsohn said that the event raised a total of $58,000 for the organization, which has an operating budget of about $1 million per year.
New Haven Reads Executive Director Kirsten Levinsohn.
“Reading is the key to all other academic learning, and as such, it’s absolutely necessary for successful life,” said Levinsohn, who has been in the role since 2010, on Wednesday night. “Learning to read should be a fundamental right for all children.”
New Haven Reads really began in 2001, when then-Mayor John DeStefano approached Christine Alexander about piloting a year-long literacy initiative across the city. At first, the organization was a collection of books in Alexander’s garage, which grew into a book bank at the Chapel Square Mall downtown and then a permanent site at 45 Bristol St. that is still in operation today.
Along the way, Alexander, who passed away in 2011, recognized how many kids in the city were struggling to read, and turned the book bank into a tutoring program. In its two decades, New Haven Reads has been able to expand its mission across sites on Bristol Street, Willow Street, Science Park, and most recently Bishop Woods Elementary School. For years, it also operated a tutoring location in Yale’s Ashmun Street Rose Center, but that closed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The format has always centered the science of reading. During hour-long one-on-one sessions with tutors, students split their time between a structured online literacy program called Lexia, a workbook designed around phonics, vocabulary, spelling, and word recognition, and reading out loud. At the end, there’s “choice time,” in which they get to celebrate the end of another tutoring session with games.
Since 2020, the organization has also added Reading Intervention for Success Everyday (RISE), an intensive program for students who need up to three hours of tutoring each week. In a phone call Thursday morning, Levinsohn described it as “the science of reading on steroids, basically.” She added that the educational lingo, for which she credits longtime literacy leader Margie Gillis, is “comprehensive sequential explicit instruction.”
In fielding support for those programs, over half of New Haven Reads’ annual budget comes from individual donations, Levinsohn said. The remainder includes “a smattering of foundation grants” as well as $25,000 from the Governor’s Urban Youth Violence Prevention Program, $24,000 from the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, $50,000 from the New Haven Board of Education, $50,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding that has come into the state, and a $150,000 congressional earmark.
Wednesday evening, the energy that has kept the organization going was palpable. As laughter rang out over Bear’s outdoor patio, former tutors, tutees, book nerds, literacy luminaries and longtime supporters mixed and mingled, telling stories over plates of steaming brisket, cornbread, broccoli salad and macaroni and cheese. Above their heads, strings of white lights gently twinkled against the blue sky, turning bright as dusk fell over the Mill River.
Barber: "You may never see them again, or maybe they come back as tutors. But you do have a lasting impact on each and every student."
Among those guests was Josh Barber, now the senior manager of aquatic and reptilian life at Columbia University and the president of the Zebrafish Husbandry Association. Twenty years ago, Barber was 13, and living in a homeless shelter in Dixwell with his mom and nine siblings. At the time, his mom was battling stage four breast cancer, and still working to get her kids the academic help they needed. Enter Alexander, the book bank, and a request for help.
“Chris was all gung-ho for trying to figure this out,” Barber remembered Wednesday night. She found students from Yale who were willing to tutor Barber and his siblings on a volunteer basis. From “a little room in the back of the book bank,” Barber became an avid reader. Aware of his love for fish, Alexander squirreled away books on marine life for him, ready with a new title when he came in each week.
“It had a lasting impact on me and my life,” he said. Barber went on to complete high school, and then pursue studies in biology at Wheaton College and Columbia University. After finishing graduate school, he found a job where he could be “a fish nerd” full time.
“I just think it’s so important to thank all of you guys, because sometimes you may not know what happens to the people you teach and the people you tutor,” he said. “You may never see them again, or maybe they come back as tutors. But you do have a lasting impact on each and every student. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Stacy Spell and Reader to Leader Sebastian Ward.
There with his wife Virginia, veteran tutor Stacy Spell remembered the early days at Bristol Street as a kind of controlled chaos, where students built their bridges to the future page by page. Now a retired police detective and the former head of Project Longevity, Spell first found New Haven Reads as a parent, when his son Noble was 10 and struggling with math and reading.
The year was 2006, he said Wednesday. When Spell first arrived at 45 Bristol St., Alexander was at a desk, trying to hold an entire operation together. Around her, there was a line out the door of families who wanted to sign up for tutoring. When he asked her what he could do to help, her response was immediate: “Sign up to become a tutor.”
For Spell, who grew up in Newhallville, it was a natural fit. Reading has always been “a major part of my life,” he said. As a kid, books like Robinson Crusoe, Call of the Wild and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn instilled in him a love for adventure that he still holds onto today, as both an urban farmer and a beekeeper in the city’s West River neighborhood. When Spell was a cop conducting homicide investigations, he met people who couldn’t read their rights.
He vowed that he would tutor as long as he was able—and has kept that promise. Bristol Street is still a home away from home, for two hours every Wednesday afternoon. Noble, who is now a champion reader, also volunteers. So does Spell’s daughter Symphony.
Gillis, who was recognized Wednesday for her years of work in literacy. "Kirsten and I have been thought partners, as we are soul sisters, who fight for equity for all of our children, especially those who don't have access to resources," she said during brief remarks.
Wednesday, he had the chance to reconnect with Sebastian Ward, a “Reader to Leader” who was once a student in the program, and is now a freshman at Yale and tutor in the program. Years ago, the two met when Spell was a substitute tutor paired with Ward for a few afternoons.
Spell still remembers the chess games the two played at the end of their sessions together. “His [Ward’s] strategy game was out of this world,” he said. Ward, in turn, remembered how adventure and fantasy authors like J.K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, Christopher Paolini and Eoin Colfer helped him catch the reading bug by the end of second grade. Now, he’s thinking about double majoring in History and English at Yale.
“I’m so proud of you,” Spell said in a hushed tone as the two posed for a photo. “I knew you’d be destined for great things.”
Sandy Flores with Bristol Street Assistant Site Director Jailene Garzon and Science Park Assistant Site Director Emma Pendon.
Nearby, sisters Melba and Sandy Flores remembered their own introduction to New Haven Reads, which started when Sandy was just two, and Melba was six. Both of them knew and loved Alexander—as did their mom, Melba Perez. “She was just so kind, and she always tried to help,” Perez said.
Wednesday, they came out with their former tutor Regina Starolis. Speaking as she nibbled a miniature cupcake, Melba Flores remembered how warm Alexander always was, making sure that non-English speakers like her mom felt welcome in the space. After starting with Starolis and tutor Josiah Brown in the second grade, books like Charlotte’s Web, Because of Winn-Dixie and Tamora Pierce’s Wild Magic series turned her on to reading.
“These are really strong relationships that help us in the long term,” she said, remembering staff who helped her apply to college. “Without New Haven Reads, I wouldn’t have known how to navigate high school. I wouldn’t have gone to college. I wouldn’t love books!”
“Really, they helped me so much more than I helped them,” Starolis said. “I got great joy out of that.”
Jailene Garzon, who is now the assistant site director at the Bristol Street location, said her mom first heard about New Haven Reads through Perez and her daughters. At home, her family spoke Spanish, and she had trouble catching up with her peers in school. After starting New Haven Reads as a second-language learner, she returned as a tutor, then an intern, then an assistant site director.
“I wanted to give back,” she said.
Honoree Kim Healey, who for years served as the president of the NewAlliance Foundation. NewAlliance's program "READy for The Grade" helps kids combat summer slide with reading tools.
It comes at a time when the science of reading could not be more critical, and has found itself very much at center stage in New Haven and across the state. Last year, a status report from the New Haven Public Schools showed that thousands of students were reading below grade level, in levels that the city’s Board of Education described as “crisis.”
It pushed a fierce debate over whether the district should move from its long-adopted use of “balanced” literacy to the kind of phonics-intensive, “structured” literacy model that New Haven Reads has always used. For months, Superintendent Iline Tracey and members of the board insisted that the old method was fine. In the midst of it all, educator Lucy Calkins, perhaps the most outspoken national advocate of balanced literacy, pulled back and admitted that she was, perhaps, wrong.
It was only in September of last year, after months of dragging its feet, that the New Haven Board of Education embraced the plan. The change comes right on time: the Connecticut Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success is now requiring that structured literacy programs be implemented by the 2023-2024 school year.
“The nice thing about the science of reading is it works for everyone,” Levinsohn said. “It works for everyone. It works for kids who are dyslexic. It works for ELL [English-language] learners. And for many of us, it's how we were taught.”
“It’s all about the implementation,” she added. “If you don't adopt it well, it will fail.”
State Sen. Gary Winfield.
Back at Bear’s, State Sen. Gary Winfield praised the organization for its work. As a kid growing up in the Bronx, “I think I traveled most of the world” through books, he said. While his dad “wasn’t very present in my life,” he remembered getting a copy of Arnold Adoff’s I Am The Darker Brother from him, and discovering Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” waiting like a gift inside. The structure of the line breaks blew his mind.
“It’s the foundation of everything,” he said. “I’m sure I would not be here right now if it were not for reading. I want that to be true for all young folks. If they do not have those skills to read and think,” everything else falls apart.
Now, he is champion of the state’s Right To Read legislation, a longtime supporter of New Haven Reads, and a doting dad who doesn’t like to miss out on the chance to read a bedtime story (or many) to his five-year-old twins, Gary and Imani. Right now, The Book With No Pictures and Pete The Cat are nightly favorites in his household. He said he also makes time for personal reading; The Physics of Blackness and The Humanity Archive are two of his recent picks.
Honored as a “Literacy Champion” later in the evening beside Margie Gillis and former NewAlliance Foundation President Kim Healey, Winfield also joked that he would continue to support New Haven Reads for many decades to come, as long as the organization kept a spot open for him to read to young kids whenever his schedule allowed it.
“When you read books and you become interested in books, those things that aren’t possible become very much a possibility,” he said. “I just love what New Haven Reads does, and as long as I get to sit on the floor—it doesn’t always have to be in a suit—and read to those young people, I will continue to do it.”