Two months ago, while participating in a fire drill, the students at John C. Clark Elementary School witnessed shots fired outside their building.
The Barbour and Nelson streets neighborhood is recognized as arguably the poorest in this poverty-stricken city — and a hot spot for crime.
While the gunfire drew media attention, there was another compelling story emerging inside this school, which has one of the state's lowest literacy levels.
More than 300 kids were participating in an ambitious reading project: The goal was to read 10,000 books by Friday.
Let the record show that in 10-plus weeks, 9,807 books were read. The goal wasn't attained. But the momentum and new enthusiasm for reading are immeasurable.
"I always thought I wasn't a good reader," said Naseem Wilson, 10, a fifth-grader who completed 75 books. "But when I started doing [book] reports, my teacher started saying they're good. So I started liking becoming a reader."
Naseem's comments were poignant in their simplicity. The compliments for his schoolwork gave the kid confidence. Suddenly, he started liking schoolwork — and getting those attaboys.
Clark is a school in dire need of regular doses of compliments. Less than 5 percent of its fourth-graders meet state proficiency goals in reading, writing and math. Ninety-five percent of the kids qualify for free lunch.
To break this cycle of abject poverty and illiteracy, it starts with opening a book.
Clark's Read & Raise project is a novel partnership between Hartford schools and the University of Connecticut's Husky Sport program. It combines literacy with community involvement and urban achievement.
For every book the children read, $1 will be donated to former UConn basketball star Emeka Okafor's One Million Lives Initiatives, which provides blood testing kits for AIDS- and HIV-ravaged Africa. Outside of the pledges for the books, there were other donations. The school was expecting to raise about $15,000.
The money, though, was secondary to getting the Clark students engaged with books and improving their vocabularies. Working at Clark is an enormous challenge. It can be deflating for teachers because the poverty and lack of academic readiness are profound.
Each year, about 25 of Husky Sport director Jennifer Bruening's UConn students give Clark an assist, serving one to three hours a day as mentors at the school. Some are athletes, but many are not. The college students, whose majors include nutrition, sociology, psychology and education, get in the classroom and receive practical experience in their desired fields.
The attachment to the kids was obvious and reciprocal Friday. The students and their UConn mentors participated in storytelling, a science fair, flag football and physical fitness drills, among other activities.
Although most of the Clark kids come from challenging home environments, their empathy for the poverty and pestilence in Africa was heartening.
"I learned that we have to help other people from other countries that need help because we are lucky to have so many things here in America, and other people aren't that lucky," said Olga Leonor, a sixth-grader who wants to be a lawyer.
Principal Beryl Irene Bailey's enthusiasm and passion for her kids are infectious.
The book project created a buzz in the school, an eagerness to read and to help others. Bailey saw a difference in some teachers, too.
"They were the key ingredient in sustaining the motivation for our children," she said.
A compliment or two can go a long way.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at