By: Tena Kunik, Chief Strategy Officer
Since 1991, Working in the Schools (WITS) has connected students with literacy mentors in public elementary schools across Chicago. What began as a caring volunteer opportunity for the founders of WITS, Marion Stone and Joanne Alter, has evolved into the most influential literacy service provider to elementary aged students in Chicago. Now in 2018, WITS plays an integral role in building positive self-identity and critical literacy skills for more than 3,000 students in WITS programs each school year.
“We always knew our programs created positive attitudes toward reading in our students. But in 2012, it became apparent that our programs were affecting reading level growth,” said Brenda Langstraat, Chief Executive Officer of WITS since 2012. “It was then that we identified the two outcomes of WITS programs to be students’ reading level growth and attitudes towards reading.”
With the addition of the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award (RLTA) program to WITS in 2015, WITS enhanced its effect on these outcomes by providing teachers with professional development in literacy best practices, coupled with the traditional WITS volunteer literacy mentorship model. “The Polk Bros. Foundation as a funder to both WITS and the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award was very interested in supporting the merger of these literacy organizations,” said Suzanne Doornbos Kerbow, Program Director for Education at Polk Bros. Foundation – a funder of WITS Mid-Day Mentoring and Rochelle Lee Teacher Award Programs. “Polk Bros. has considered our investment in both RLTA and WITS to be a testament to our commitment to elementary students reaching reading level attainment. These programs merging under one organization is exactly the type of collaboration and focus we think will help improve the reading level attainment for students in Chicago Public Schools.”
Each school year, WITS measures students’ growth across programs. Consistently, WITS students out-perform the national average in yearly reading level growth. In the 2016-2017 school year, students in WITS Mid-Day Mentoring (MDM) program, a school-based literacy mentorship program for third graders that leverages volunteer engagement from 22 corporate partners, substantially out-performed the national average. This past school year, 77% of MDM students performed above the national average in reading level growth. Third grade reading is an important indicator of long-term academic success. Students in third grade are making the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. A 2015 report by the Center for Public Education sited that struggling readers at this academic transition period rarely catch up and are four times more likely to drop out of high school. The Annie E. Casey Foundation reported in 2010 that, “every student that does not complete high school costs our society an estimated $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes and productivity.” WITS evaluation indicates that its programs are having a significant impact on changing the trajectory for the students it serves.
Below are highlights from WITS 2016-2017 school year report. This data represents growth over one school year:
- 63% of WITS kindergarten students exceeded the national average for reading level growth
- 77% of WITS third grade students exceeded the national average for reading level growth
- 75% of WITS students improved their overall attitude toward reading
- 69% of WITS students exceeded the national average reading level growth for fourth, fifth and sixth grades.
Dr. Teresa Campos, Principal at Lozano Bilingual Academy since 2011, said, “WITS is an integral part of the literacy program at Lozano Bilingual Academy. They have been part of this school for six years. In that time Lozano has moved from being a Level 3 to a Level 1+ school. Reading level scores are a key input to that rating. There is no doubt that WITS has played an important role in that success,” WITS activates its full portfolio of programs at Lozano, serving the majority its of students. Lozano Elementary represents a prime example of the importance of the consistent literacy programming that WITS provides. This school year, 60% of Lozano students are reading at grade-level, out-performing the CPS average of 50%.
In 2017, WITS’ Board of Directors led a yearlong strategic planning exercise to identify the goals that will best position WITS to address the critical importance of getting more CPS students to read at grade-level by the time they enter fourth grade. “Given our size and influence in both CPS and the corporate community in Chicago, we are taking steps to determine how best our programs can be designed to not only influence reading level growth but attainment. The Board believes this to be an important part of building a better Chicago,” said Scott Lehman, WITS Director and Chair of the Performance Measurement Committee. Lehman is one of 18 volunteers from Citigroup that hosts students from Walsh Elementary at its offices each week as part of WITS Workplace Mentoring program.
WITS currently partners with 80 elementary schools to provide teacher professional development and volunteer literacy mentorship to thousands of students. The 1,500-person volunteer corps is comprised of individuals from 67 corporate and university partners, as well as community members.
“WITS is a movement of educators, volunteers and investors coming together to support a better public education for every student,” said Langstraat. “We have a lot of work to do and WITS is the organization best positioned in the city of Chicago to lead the charge of getting all of our elementary students to grade-level reading. The research and data support this work as essential to ensuring that students become proficient readers.”