To celebrate our 15th year, New Haven Reads decided to sit down with our 10-plus-year volunteers and talk about our program.We spoke to Ethel Berger first. Ethel is an author/illustrator and one of the original members of the New Haven Reads board. She has volunteered with us for well over ten years.
NHR: When and why did you start tutoring at New Haven Reads?
Ethel: 11 or 12 years ago. I wanted to help children who were struggling. I volunteered in the New Haven Public Schools, but when I walked through the door at NHR, I thought, “This is the place I can make a difference.” I immediately felt Chris (Alexander, New Haven Reads founder) was a warm, caring person and that warmth and caring permeated the place. It is still the same warm place. It also seemed a workable model.
NHR: What keeps you coming back?
Ethel: I continue to support NHR because I see it as a bright light in the city. I love New Haven, but feel that there are major problems in our educational system. NHR works diligently and successfully to alleviate those problems for the students it supports. Over the years it has helped students and families. That has had a ripple effect throughout the city. If I mention NHR in my political work, the reaction is immediately positive. In our hardest hit communities, everyone knows some child who has gone to and been helped by NHR. Sometimes when I think of people I admire I think, “this person has truly made a difference in their life. They have graced the world.” I apply that thought to Chris Alexander as a person, but also to NHR as a continuing organization. It has made and continues to make a significant difference and the organization and its amazing staf fgrace our community.
NHR: From your personal perspective, how has NHR changed over the last 10 years?
Ethel: When I started at NHR, it was a small program. There was one site. We used a basic Explode the Code test to establish reading level, and Explode the Code was the primary teaching tool along with reading to and with students. Chris Alexander was able to advocate for families in the school systems, but in a limited way. Over time the program has expanded to four sites, there are extensive testing tools for reading levels and to test progress as well as information on leveled readers. NHR is able to advocate for families in the school system, helping families negotiate and arranging PPTs and getting the students the services they need. There are great summer programs, a kindergarten and pre-K program all of which enlarge the students’ experience.
NHR: What kind of impact do you believe that NHR has on our community and the city of New Haven?
Ethel: I think NHR has had a significant impact on our community and the city of New Haven. It has helped students across the city both academically and emotionally. The students read better, problem solve at a higher level and have another positive relationship in their lives. The student – tutor bond is special. This bond goes way beyond just the academic benefits that occur. There is a giving and caring that goes both ways. NHR and its incredible staff serve as a large, warm family for the families they serve
NHR: What impact, if any, do you feel that tutoring at NHR has had on you?
Ethel: NHR taught me much about New Haven and the struggles families have. I loved the students I worked with and, as always with children, learned from them. The students are funny, some caring, always challenging. To see a student begin to read, spell and write better is wonderful. My relationships with the students I tutored enriched my life.
NHR: Do you have good tutoring story or something funny perhaps?
Ethel: For funny, one of my favorite moments was tutoring a severely dyslexic student who was incredibly smart. He was in 4th grade, decoded at a 2nd grade level and had a vocabulary of a 12th grader because he could remember anything he heard. I was teaching him the “aw” sound and used the example of an owl’s claws for the sound. He simply looked at me and said, I thought they were called talons. It is hard to get a student that smart to go back to stage one and learn all the vowel and diphthong sounds and learn to decode, but he did. When he came, his mother said, ”he cried when he had to read.” When he left, he could read.