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One New Yorker’s Quest To Give Children a Leg Up on Literacy

After a career in banking and educational publishing, Maureen Rover was looking forward to relaxing in retirement. But a late 1990s newspaper article about low New York City public-school test scores so dismayed her that she launched a literacy program to help poor children at high risk of failure.

By

Leslie Brody

Maureen Rover was having her usual coffee and muffin for breakfast one morning in the late 1990s when a newspaper story about New York City state test scores caught her attention. She was dismayed to see that a third of the city’s public-school children were far behind in reading at the crucial gateway of third grade.

Out went her plan to relax in retirement after a career in banking and educational publishing. Instead, Ms. Rover, now 74 years old, founded the Reading Team, a nonprofit that brings free literacy lessons and books to poor children at high risk of failure.

Launched in 2001, it has grown to reach more than 800 children in Harlem, from preschool through eighth grade, at P.S. 36 and a separate site nearby. An independent study in 2009 found the program had significant impact.

Ms. Rover, a New Yorker who volunteers as president of the nonprofit, recently received an award from World of Children, a California group that honors five people around the globe each year who make a difference in children’s lives. The $50,000 prize will go to support the Reading Team, whose $1 million annual budget is funded by a range of foundations and donors.

What is key, Ms. Rover said, is that the Reading Team starts working with children early, through partnerships with a range of Harlem child-care centers.

Literacy mentor Vanessa Maldonado helps Sindou Diomande with his homework at the Reading Team on Thursday.Photo: Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal

“When they’re 3 and 4, they still believe they can do anything,” she said. In the nonprofit’s after-school program for later elementary grades, the work is more difficult: “By the time they’re referred to us, they’re already feeling they’re not very smart or they’re not good kids because they feel lost or limited in their abilities.”

Sheldon Shuch, a former city Department of Education administrator in charge of literacy in Harlem, found in his 2009 study that the Reading Team had positive effects, with students who joined its preschool program going on to read on grade level in third grade and outperforming the city overall on state tests.

He cautioned, however, that the sample size was small and many children left the group he was tracking for a variety of reasons. Of the 302 students assessed in preschool, 79 remained in the study 4½ years later.

“One could argue the kids who dropped out were the worst readers, or the best readers, who knows?” Mr. Shuch said. “But Maureen is very sincere, she is really doing important stuff, and she stuck with the program, which is very unusual. What she was doing is very commendable.”

Other nonprofits also are trying to tackle the literacy crisis in high-poverty neighborhoods. One called Teaching Matters is helping 31 public elementary schools in the Bronx develop its staff.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has dispatched literacy coaches to high-need districts in an effort to get all second-graders to read on level by 2026, but skeptics say students won’t make real strides until city public-school class sizes are smaller.

Some of the Reading Team’s materials.Photo: Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal

By its tally, the Reading Team said 79% of its students in grades three through five passed state tests in English last spring, almost double the rate for the city as a whole.

By another measure, the Test of Early Reading Ability, its preschoolers jumped from a mean score in the 22nd percentile nationwide in fall 2016 to the 88th percentile by June. That test looks at knowledge of the alphabet and the ability to construct meaning from print.

The Reading Team uses a combination of small group lessons, songs, puppets, storytelling and computer-based lessons from Waterford Early Learning, a software program that adapts to each student’s skills and pace. Students get one-on-one help if they need it.

On a recent morning at P.S. 36, 11 prekindergarteners sat in three different circles, determined by their needs. Their playful exercises were steeped in the traditional approach of phonics, or decoding words by sounding them out. In one cluster, literacy mentor Mary Escalante held up a picture of a yo-yo.

“Can you make the sound of a Y for me?” she asked, prompting a chorus of “ya ya ya” from her young charges.

Their homeroom teacher, Betty Kouassi, said the small group lessons helped build their confidence. “They’re not fearful of using the tools,” she said, “and have a sense of ‘I can do it,’ so they’re not standoffish.”

At P.S. 36, every K-2 class comes to the Reading Team’s room twice a week. Older students who are struggling are referred by teachers for after-school enrichment.

The project’s other venue is located in a former hotel on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem. Children from some nearby child-care centers go twice a week for 90 minutes. Its after-school program also attracts students who need extra help from 18 local elementary schools for more than three hours every weekday. Middle schoolers come on Saturdays.

David McNeal said his son started attending the Reading Team daily in kindergarten when he was behind in skill level, and now he is on target in third grade, despite his challenges with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “Not only are the children relaxed but they’re engaged,” Mr. McNeal said. “It’s as if each child has the complete attention of one teacher.”

The Reading Team’s literacy mentors often are graduate students in education at Hunter College, Fordham University and Teachers College, Columbia University. They get 50 hours of training before starting, according to the program.

Ms. Rover didn’t expect to be working so hard at the nonprofit at this point. “I accepted it would take a while to raise money,” Ms. Rover said, “but I’m a little bit surprised that I’m still doing heavy lifting, 17 years in.”

Write to Leslie Brody at leslie.brody@wsj.com

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