(WTNH) – Learning to read is arguably the most important skill a child is taught in the classroom. It’s no secret the pandemic had a devastating impact on students across Connecticut, with literacy rates falling in many school districts, especially in urban areas like New Haven.

In this part of our Educating Connecticut, News 8 is looking into what the New Haven school district is doing to get young readers back on track.

Jenna Mitchell reads to her Kindergarten class at L.W. Beecher Museum Magnet School in New Haven. She’s been a teacher for 13 years and says Kindergarten sets the foundation for reading.

“As a result of the pandemic, we found that many of our students are coming in with less background knowledge than they previously had as far as reading and writing skills,” Mitchell said.

She says the aftermath of the pandemic has many teachers reintroducing the basics.

“Holding a book, turning the pages from left to right, tracking print from left to right, all of those things I needed to go back and work on with kids,” Mitchell explained.

In 2022, reading assessment data showed that 84% of third graders in New Haven public schools were reading below their grade level with only 16% reading at the level they should be. Studies show that students who are not proficient in reading by the end of the third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

New Haven’s fallen literacy numbers caused outrage in the city, even prompting a news conference among clergy leaders.

“There is no sense of urgency to teach our kids how to read,” said Reverend Dr. Boise Kimber.

The numbers also didn’t sit well with New Haven Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Kiesha Red-Hannans.

“You go in, and you’re saying this can’t be true. I know our kids are better. I know our teachers are better,” Red-Hannans said.

Lynn Brantley is the literacy supervisor for the district and says the numbers didn’t come as a surprise.

“Did I think they would be that low? No. Was I surprised that they dropped? No because we lived COVID here,” Brantley said. “We knew where they were dropping. We knew how hard it was to teach you sounds over a computer versus sounds when you are with me, and I can show you my mouth.”

To remedy the reading gap, district officials say they spoke with parents, teachers, and administrators to create a plan.

“How do we shore up our teachers’ practices in such a way that it translates to better outcomes for our students and improve teacher quality,” Red-Hannans said.

The district picked two new Kindergarten through third-grade pilot reading programs called “Houghton Mifflin Harcourt” and “Savvas.” Last month, the pilot launched at 12 New Haven schools with teachers like Michele Moore, who is already noticing a difference.

“I have to say, I am loving it so far. The children are very engaged,” Moore said.

Teachers told News 8 the program offers more resources with focused instruction, training and professional development.

“I think this really can be successful and it’s a great opportunity for all of the schools in New Haven to get on the same page,” Mitchell said.

It’s too early to say if the pilot programs will bridge the literacy gap in New Haven or move the numbers in the right direction, but district leaders remain confident it will bring change.