‘This Is The Only Time My Child’s Felt Good About Reading’


Kristina Vakhman

For Dr. Jesse Turner, inspiring kids through reading is his mission.

Kristina Vakhman, News Editor

Reading is transformative for children. Dr. Jesse Turner of Central Connecticut’s Literacy Center is a firm believer in that.

“Books are a way to heal. Books are therapy. We follow a piece that you should see yourself in the books you read. You should see others in the books you read,” Turner said.

Turner has worked for and with children for over 35 years. From being a nationwide activist against No Child Left Behind to being a reading consultant for high schoolers at the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation in Arizona, he’s done it all. His vision of equality beginning when, at age 8, he marched on Washington with his grandfather and heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

At CCSU’s Literacy Center, Turner has helped students advance their reading skills for 20 years. And he’s got a voice for reading to children – it’s deep and gravelly with a twinge of a Southern-style accent.

But what perhaps qualifies Turner the most is his dedication to the kids in the face of a tight budget. For “Take Your Child to Work Day” last week, he scrambled to find souvenirs for his little visitors, going to deans to collect items for his goodie bags. He also pays out-of-pocket for plastic gold medals that incentivize his students to read more.

“Kids here die to win those gold medals,” Turner said. To get one, his readers need to complete a challenge to their level of reading ability, like finishing an entire chapter or practicing a certain number of sight words. “They chase me down all the time. ‘Okay, I got my 50 sight words, Dr. Turner. I got all my -ing’s.’ That’ll be the little things they do and they can get a medal.”

The Literacy Center was founded in 1964. Moved from Barnard to Carroll, it looks more like a library than a classroom and there’s a good reason for that; the purpose of the Center is not only to provide children from surrounding areas with $150,000 worth of free Cadillac tutoring services every year, but also to give CCSU students mastering as reading specialists a chance to practice teaching in a real-world setting.

The Center has helped more than 10,000 children and has produced 40 percent of Connecticut’s reading specialists, Turner said.

“A lot of times, [my CCSU students will] write things on my evaluation and say, ‘Thank you for teaching us that we can be silly,'” Turner recalled. “Kids deserve a chance for their teachers to be silly. I don’t think it’s silly. I think it’s smart and bright.”

Turner and his CCSU students also visit schools in New Britain, Plainville and Newington to teach children. High school kids, he said, are the most difficult to involve in the program, but the easiest to work with.

“They’re usually the most successful. They see a boost in their grades,” he stated.

The children in the program make up a diverse group of backgrounds and ability levels. Turner makes sure to cater to them all.

“We focus on the whole child here. We see the child, not the test score. I haven’t met a child that wasn’t a gift,” Turner said. Every month, differently-themed books are featured on the Center’s shelves; April is Poetry Month, for instance, while March is Women’s History Month, February is Black History Month and September is Hispanic Heritage Month.

“We’re just really good at making the connection to who we are as Americans,” Turner said. “We kinda say we’re celebrating the tapestry of America. If all our kids were white, it wouldn’t matter – we’d still do these things because we think it makes a difference in how people respect each other.”

Additionally, a big component of the program is the Read-a-Thon the Center hosts every month. Children wear pajamas or costumes – “I’m usually dressed up as the pirate or I’m dressed up as Mr. Invincible,” Turner said – and read for 90 minutes straight to build reading and independent reading while eating from a massive bag of popcorn. Turner can’t make the popcorn himself anymore because he triggered the fire alarm once.

“We don’t really have any disappointed parents. Yes, the service is free, but it’s more than just the free service. They’re not disappointed because many of them will come back and say, ‘This is the only time my child’s felt good about reading.’ Because we’ll celebrate anything,” he said.

The time, energy and additional costs are all worth it to Turner. To him, hearing from parents that their children have grown up to be successful thanks in part to the Center’s aid is what makes it worthwhile.

“People say, ‘Teaching’s so hard.’ I turn around and say, ‘I have the best stories,'” Turner said.