by Tena Kunik, Chief Executive Officer
The WITS Mission
WITS sets students on a trajectory for success by building critical literacy skills and developing positive self-identity through teacher led literacy professional development and volunteer powered mentorship programs.
The First Partnership
In 1999 WITS developed a unique turn-key model for partner corporations to engage in Chicago Public Schools. The Workplace Mentoring Program was originally developed by WITS in partnership with Cboe Holdings. This program brings students to the workplace – offering students a look into life at a corporate office, while providing literacy support and mentorship, the cornerstones of WITS’ programs. After a successful program launch with Cboe, WITS recruited other Chicago corporations to engage groups of employees for one hour each week to work with the same student for the course of the school year.
Expanding Opportunities for Corporations
For the past 20 years, WITS has expanded opportunities for corporations to invest time and resources in neighborhood elementary schools. With more than 60 corporate partners, and thousands of volunteers, WITS volunteers have invested nearly $9,999,475 since 1999.
Today, WITS is the largest activator of year-long corporate volunteer programming in Chicago Public Schools. WITS volunteer corps is made up of large Chicago corporations, including: BP America, Cboe Holdings, CME, Deloitte, Exelon, GCM Grosvenor, and Northern Trust. Corporations contribute nearly 50% of WITS’ privately funded budget and together serve more than 5,000 Chicago Public Schools students annually.
Why these Investments Matter
Investment from the corporate and non-profit community, both big and small, has played a critical role in making CPS America’s fastest-improving urban school district. Each year, WITS leverages consistent and strong relationships with Chicago companies to provide literacy programming at no cost to 92 Chicago neighborhood elementary schools. Two years ago, WITS made the strategic decision to expand programming by layering WITS services at established partner schools. WITS’ partnerships with Exelon and the Jewish United Fund (JUF), along with community volunteers and Rochelle Lee Teacher Awardees, allow WITS to provide literacy enrichment to nearly every student at Rodolfo Lozano Bilingual & International Center Elementary School. Steve Solomon, President, Exelon Foundation, said, “For seven years Exelon employee volunteers have been one of the largest corporate volunteer corps at WITS. We are very proud of this designation and the commitment our volunteers have to the students at Lozano.”
Evaluation has shown that WITS partnership with nearly 70 corporations drives students’ beginning of year to end of year reading-level growth through year-long one-to-one mentorship. Each student in WITS Mid-Day Mentoring and Workplace Mentoring volunteer program is partnered with a weekly or biweekly pair of corporate volunteers for the entire school-year. This consistency and focus on relationship building and mentorship has led to 70% of WITS students outperforming the Fountas & Pinnell national average in reading-level growth on average yearly.
Creating Opportunities for Employee Engagement
The WITS program has also proven to be an investment for the corporations’ employees. Solomon said, “Working with WITS has allowed our employees to engage with students and communities that they otherwise would not have had the opportunity to do.” This mutually beneficial relationship has resulted in 77% of WITS corporate volunteers reporting that they have benefited professionally and socially from volunteering with WITS. Additionally, 88% of corporate volunteers report that volunteering has improved their understanding of the literacy challenges faced by Chicago Public Schools students. Solomon went on to say, “The students have become part of the fabric of Exelon because of the relationships between them and our employees.”
A Leader in Corporate Activation in the Literary Space
Ron Sonenthal, former WITS Board of Directors President and current Partner at Deloitte Tax LLP, has been with the organization through its evolution in becoming the leader in corporate activation in the literacy space. He said, “From a WITS perspective, we wanted programs that would financially expand the organization, that would have measurable outcomes, and would expand our connection with the business community. We then made an effort to attract corporate board members.” Deloitte has been a partner of WITS since its early days in corporate programming. Sonenthal went on to say, “We know that our professionals find engaging with Chicago Public Schools’ students through WITS gives them a way to participate in mentorship that is unique and rewarding for all. The group dynamic builds camaraderie amongst our professionals and creates an opportunity for people to come together and serve as a team.”
The WITS Tagline
WITS tagline, “Building Communities. Empowering Readers.” is encapsulated in the organizations ability to leverage long-term corporate relationships to deliver measurable outcomes for students. WITS students consistently outperform the national average for reading level growth – truly, building communities and empowering readers.