03/30/2012 02:06 pm ET Updated May 30, 2012

Yale Students Tutoring In New Haven School Reading Program Target At-Risk Kids

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.

As it tries to concoct a recipe for turning around a low-performing school, Wexler/Grant has a secret ingredient: tutors like Esther Hyun from Yale. Lots of them.

Before hitting her own Jewish Latin-American writers class at Yale, Hyun (pictured) was at Wexler/Grant Wednesday reading a picture book to second-graders who need extra help. She's a regular at the school—showing up three times a week to help out.

Hyun is one of 10 Yale students who show up every week to read with students at Wexler/Grant, a public K-8 school in its first year of a turnaround effort. The school serves 378 kids at 55 Foote St. in the Dixwell neighborhood, blocks from Yale's campus.

Three times a week, Yale students roll out of bed in time to arrive at the school by 8 or 8:30 a.m. They stay for two hours tutoring six students, two at a time, in rigorous, half-hour sessions.

The program, called Modified Reading Recovering Intervention (MoRRI), targets "at-risk" kids who have fallen significantly behind in reading, often by one grade level or more. It aims to catch students early, in the 1st or 2nd grade, before they slip too far behind, get overwhelmed with frustration, or—in the worst case scenario—give up.

It doesn't involve just reading to kids. It involves flash cards, magnetic letters, and other tools to break it down for kids who haven't yet caught on to reading.

While other schools in New Haven's district have MoRRI tutors, most lack the manpower to serve all the kids who need extra reading help. Last year, Wexler/Grant was one of only two schools citywide that was able to serve all the kids who needed MoRRI tutors, according to Claudia Merson, Yale's director of public school partnerships. Of the 62 kids who got help, all but two showed gains.

This year, 65 students at Wexler/Grant are getting MoRRI tutoring, thanks to tutors like Hyun.

Hyun, a senior literature major at Yale, headed to Wexler/Grant Wednesday morning while some of her classmates were asleep. She sat down at a table in Room C-1 of the elementary wing. Two 2nd-graders left their regular class to meet her there. Each tutor takes two students at a time for half an hour—a level of personal instruction kids don't get in the classroom.

Perched on maroon plastic chairs, the students practiced reading sentences on strips of paper. They read aloud from a book they've been working through.

As her students read, Hyun quietly ticked with a pencil how many words they pronounced correctly—a "reading record" that the tutors will track through the rest of the year.

Then Hyun opened a new book, Pinduli by Janell Cannon, about a hyena who gets teased for having big ears. First she paged through the book to show the kids the pictures and ask what they thought would happen. Then she read the text aloud.

She paused several times to check comprehension: "How do you think Pinduli feels?"

Rojae Sims (pictured at the top of the story) said Pinduli must feel bullied because of the mean remarks about having big ears. "That's not right."

The half-hour session, three times a week, can make a big impact on kids' reading, according to the program's coordinators. Last year, MoRRI students got an average of 40 tutoring sessions from October through May, according to Yale's Merson. First-grade students gain an average of 5.6 reading levels on the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA). Second-grade students gained an average of 3 levels.

Twelve 1st-grade students improved enough to graduate from the program in January, Merson said, making room for seven newcomers. Sixteen of the 1st-graders improved from the "basic" to the "proficient" category on the DRA by year's end, according to the district.

Hyun, who started tutoring last school year, said she's noticed the improvement. One student came to her reading on a kindergarten level.

"He couldn't read anything," said Hyun. She worked with him every week. She went to his parent-teacher conference and enlisted his mother in practicing reading sight words at home.

At a certain point, something clicked—"he shot up" in reading scores, rose four levels on the DRA, and graduated from the program.

Other kids have proved more of a struggle, like the little girl who showed up "terrified" of reading. She would sit down at the table "and just cry," Hyun recalled. The tutors worked with her slowly, starting with non-scary poems with lots of pictures.

Hyun said she can relate to the kids. At the age of 9, her family moved to America from South Korea. Hyun didn't know English. All she knew how to say was: "boy, girl, hello, hi and thank you." When she was thrown into public school in North Dakota, school was "terrifying," she recalled. She got pulled out of the classroom for extra English lessons, and learned to speak fluently after one year.

"I know how important it is" to get extra help, she said. That's why "I find this work to be really rewarding."

Merson said students like Hyun are paid an hourly wage, which is funded through work-study money the federal government sends to Yale. Yale began the MoRRI program at Wexler/Grant four years ago. The Class of 1951 came forward with money to support a healthy budget for school supplies and events.

Yale's investment has doubled the number of kids at Wexler/Grant who can get extra reading help, according to Darra Meder, the certified teacher who trains and oversees the MoRRI tutors at the school. Certified teachers who get hired part-time to work with MoRRI kids take three kids at a time, or 27 per week.

Meder said while a 19-year-old student isn't as effective as a certified teacher, they have learned a lot about different reading strategies. The Yale students get training and support from Meder and from a literacy coach. MoRRI is based on Marie Clay's Reading Recovery program, which targets the lowest-achieving first-graders in a school.

At a nearby table, sophomore Katy Clayton led a one-on-one lesson with a new student. She used four methods of teaching throughout the lesson: breaking words into chunks using magnetic letters, tracking how the student read a familiar book aloud, reading isolated sentences, then tackling a new book. The she sent her student home with flashcards to practice at home.

"Practice your sight cards tonight for 20 minutes," Clayton instructed her charge.

"Twenty minutes!" the student replied with a grin. Then she took a plastic bag back to her class.

Clayton and Hyun's lessons followed a structure that every MoRRI teacher follows. They record each lesson plans in a binder, along with notes about how it went.

Hyun said it's been "really hard waking up in the morning," but she finds the work rewarding. It even inspired her to join Teach for America after she graduates this May.

"The kids can't remember my name," she said, "but it's OK, they come give me hugs."

Meder said the Yale students' input has made a big difference at an important time.

When kids are falling behind, she said, "catching them in that 1st grade is so crucial."