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Building relationships between corporations and neighborhood schools

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.”

The Outcomes

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.

Diversity and Children’s Books: Celebrating Multicultural Children’s Book Day

By: Sara Martinez

Recently, at one of my  Mid-Day Mentoring programs, a student came up to me after reading “You Should Meet Mae Jemison” by Laurie Calkhoven. She told me how excited she was to learn about a female astronaut, and she did not know there were any before reading this book with her mentor. She proceeded to ask me to bring more books with female heroes, and now has a steady to-be-read list of books with all kinds of diverse characters in her Mid-Day Mentoring folder.

Celebrating Diverse Books

I was delighted at how a simple request could spark a love for learning about people and cultures she might not have read about if she did not have access to these types of books during program.

Multicultural Children’s Book Day is a great way to spread the word about the immense impact diverse books can have on students and mentors alike. This day is celebrated worldwide on January 25th, and it’s mission is to, “not only raise awareness for the kid’s books that celebrate diversity, but to get more of these books into classrooms and libraries.” According to Multicultural Children’s Book Day official website, a diverse book can include any of the following:

  • Books that contain characters of color as well as main characters that represent a minority point of view
  • Books written by an author of diversity or color from their perspective
  • Books that share ideas, stories, and information about cultures, race, religion, language, and traditions
  • Books that embrace special needs or even “hidden disabilities” like ADHD, ADD, and anxiety

Windows and Mirrors

The relevance and lack-there-of diverse books in children’s literature has been studied since the early ‘60s. According to We Need Diverse Books, the spark of this movement occurred in 1965 when The Saturday Review published an article that revealed only 6.7 percent, or 349 books out of 5,206 children’s book published from 1962-1965, had diverse characters in them. A recent study from 2013 shows that only 93 books out of 3,200 published books were about African American characters. This sparked the New York Times to finally ask, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”.

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop reiterated this importance of diverse books in her article, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors”, that describes how people of color see through window when reading books, rather than a mirror. The characters in the majority of kidlit books they are reading are unlike the experiences and people they know, and it leaves children with a distorted worldview. This phenomenon effects everyone—a lack of diversity in books is culturally misleading. Diverse books show a true reflection of our society and the progress we have made. According to We Need Diverse Books, in a survey of 2,000 schools, 90% of educators believed children would become more enthusiastic readers if they had books reflecting their lives. Everyone deserves to read books that reflects their own experiences, rather than a window into someone else’s.

The Impact of Diverse Books

WITS prides itself in cultivating a library that reflects not only the students in our programs but also books with cultures students may not know. Here are a few of my Mid-Day Mentoring students favorite books:

Learn more about diverse books and their impact on students by watching this video. Tag @witschicago and #ReadYourWorld on January 25th to celebrate Multicultural Book Awareness Day with your favorite diverse book!

Beyond Dr. Seuss: Ten Rhyming Picture Books

By Ellen Werner, Program Director

A WITS community member recently asked us for suggestions for rhyming books for a first grader and specified “not Dr. Seuss.” Frankly, I appreciated that direction! Dr. Seuss is great, but many, many excellent children’s books have come out since 1957 when the “Cat in the Hat” was published.

Here are ten rhyming picture books, all published in the last decade:

Some Pets” by Angela DiTerlizzi

Rosie Revere, Engineer” by Andrea Beaty

The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath (Amazing Scientists)” by Julia Finley Mosca

La Princesa and the Pea” by Susan Middleton Elya

Grandma’s Tiny House” by JaNay Brown-Wood

Rhyming Dust Bunnies” by Jan Thomas

Gazpacho for Nacho” by Tracey C. Kyle

Nothing Rhymes with Orange” by Adam Rex

The Road Home” by Katie Cotton

I’m Just No Good at Rhyming: and other Nonsense for Mischievous Kids and Immature Grown-Ups” by Chris Harris

Want to make sure WITS students have access to these excellent books?  Send us one of these titles included in our Amazon wish list. If you use Amazon to send a gift to WITS, make sure to include a gift note with your name and email address so we can thank you. Happy reading!

WITS Leadership Transition

Dear WITS Community,

As the new year kicks off, we have exciting news to share. After seven years with WITS, Brenda Langstraat will move on at the end of the month to become the next President of the Chicago Public Library Foundation. This is a natural continuation of the work that she has done with WITS and is an opportunity for her to advance the #1 ranked public library system in the US.

Tena Kunik, our Chief Strategy Officer has accepted the position of Chief Executive Officer of WITS. Tena joined WITS four years ago, bringing a strong strategic focus for growth along with tremendous passion and energy for the work. Brenda and Tena forged a leadership partnership that advanced WITS and impacted every student in our programs.

WITS is a movement of educators, volunteers, and investors coming together to support a better public education by creating opportunities for every student in our 90 schools. On behalf of the Board of Directors, we thank you for your commitment and look forward to our continued work together.

I joined WITS in January of 2012 and every single day since, I have been empowered by the WITS community; by each of you. Thank you! It has been a tremendous honor to work alongside the passionate and tireless WITS Board, Associates Board and Staff Team. It has been an honor to support the work of our teachers who are literacy leaders and our mentors who show up every day for our students.

I am thrilled that Tena will step in to lead WITS. As many leaders say, hire people who are smarter and more talented than you. That was certainly the case when we hired Tena. I have learned so much from her. I have become a better leader because of her. She is going to take WITS to the next level.

For more than 20 years, my career has been driven by the deep belief that creating empowered communities of learners will transform lives and support the advancement of Chicago’s neighborhoods. I look forward to joining the Chicago Public Library Foundation to expand and advance programs in 80 neighborhood libraries.

And, I look forward to continuing to serve the WITS mission as an advocate and as a literacy mentor for students. I find myself at a loss for words to express what WITS means to me personally and professionally. The people who are drawn to the mission of WITS are people who understand what an honor it is to support every student in our programs…people who understand that WITS is a powerful movement that has and will continue to transform lives.

WITS has certainly transformed mine.

January 5, 2015 was my first day at WITS.  Every day since has challenged and taught me more than any other position I’ve previously held.  Most of my career has been dedicated to education – I truly believe it is the most powerful creator of change in the world. Similarly, I believe in the WITS mission to my core and working to deliver on that mission for the last 1,440 days has been a defining opportunity in my life.

To now lead WITS, an organization that engages thousands of students, educators, and mentors, is humbling and exhilarating.  The WITS community, from the Board to our students, have helped me grow into a more strategic and empathetic leader. Brenda has been an inspiring guide and the most important contributor in preparing me for this role. More importantly, she is a trusted and valued friend.
This is one of those times where thank you seems wholly inadequate.  I look forward to using everything I have learned, and continue to learn, from everyone in the WITS family to continue our legacy of Building Communities and Empowering Readers. #IAMWITS

Meg Hiestand: Why I choose WITS

Meg HiestandWITS has the most generous and invested donors in the city of Chicago. Meg Hiestand, Chicago White Sox Coordinator of Community Relations, has been a champion of WITS for four years. Read why Meg chooses to invest her time and financial resources in WITS.

Why is WITS important to you?

WITS is important to me because it addresses an ongoing need in the Chicago community: the enrichment of education and providing everyone the opportunity to succeed in reading. WITS truly inserts itself in places where it is needed the most, not necessarily those that are most convenient. WITS works, period. I feel confident that my time and financial resources are going where they are most needed, to a program with proven success.

What makes you continue to give to WITS?

I continue to give to WITS because I have seen its impact firsthand. I read with a student every Wednesday, and have done so for four years. I see the improvement across the course of a year in each student, simply with some one-on-one time each week. I also feel that WITS as an organization is incredibly organized and detailed. I am always clear on their mission, goals, and utilization of volunteers and financial resources.

Why do you think literacy is important to our society?

Literacy is important in society because it is the key to absolutely everything. Being able to read well and achieving a high level of reading comprehension only increases an individual’s chances to success in whatever they decide to pursue. I also find that the more extensive of a vocabulary an individual possesses, the better they are able to express themselves in all situations. Reading is the concrete base on which we all build our life.

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The importance of mentorship for teachers

Did you know that 86% of teachers who had first-year mentorship remained teaching after 4 years?

Having access to mentorship and professional development is career changing for teachers. According to The Learning Policy Institute, one of the top three strategies for improving teacher effectiveness and retention is to increase access to mentoring and professional development. The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award (RLTA) provides mentorship and professional development opportunities for Chicago Public Schools teachers by offering programming for teachers to learn from their peers.

The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award

The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award is a professional development program for Chicago Public Schools teachers, focused on developing balanced literacy instructional practices in classrooms. The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award Alumni Network consists of over 5,400 teachers committed to developing lifelong readers in the classroom. Teachers may apply to the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award as an Individual Awardee or as a Study Group member.

The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award Study Groups

Rochelle Lee Teacher Award Study Groups are school-based professional learning communities. Study Groups develop a goal to guide their learning throughout the school year, and meet monthly to discuss instruction and push their practice to reach their goal. Study Groups allow teachers to have a school-wide impact on student literacy instruction.

The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award Summer Institute.

Over the summer, more than 100 Chicago Public Schools teachers come together to improve their literacy instructional practices at Rochelle Lee Teacher Award Summer Institute. Awardees receive access to over 200 hours of teacher-led professional development, and are given the opportunity to tailor their experience to gain the resources and techniques that are most applicable to the needs of their classrooms and students.

The Future of the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award Program

In order to ensure teachers in the Chicago Public Schools have access to the mentorship and professional development they need, WITS plans to expand the RLTA program footprint in Chicago’s level 2 and 3 schools this year.

To support WITS in this initiative please make a donation by visiting

Student & Mentor Spotlight: Julie and Latrawanda

By Eleanor Dollear, Program Coordinator

As a WITS program coordinator, I have the privilege of seeing relationships between students and mentors build from week to week, and sometimes, year to year. This is the second year that 5th grader Latrawanda and Roosevelt’s Julie Mack have been paired in the WITS on Campus program between Brownell Elementary and Roosevelt University. It has been so much fun to watch their friendship. Together they’ve read many books and conquered even more homework assignments. It isn’t unusual to hear them laughing together during WITS and connecting about how their day has been. I interviewed Latrawanda and Julie about their time together and enjoyed hearing about their wonderful partnership!

How did you first get involved with WITS?

Julie: About four years ago a colleague mentioned that she was involved in the program, and it sounded like something I would love to do.
Latrawanda: I was in our school computer lab, and the assistant principal asked my teacher to choose students to come to WITS and I was one of them.

Why did you choose to be involved with WITS?

Julie: I’ve been teaching for over 30 years, mostly at the college level, so when I learned that young students were coming to Roosevelt, I thought, how could I pass that up? Latrawanda and I hit it off right away last year. We have a lot of fun together.

What does WITS mean to you?

Latrawanda: To me WITS is an after-school program, but it’s more than that. It’s personal, because you can actually connect with your mentor.

What do you do when you’re not at WITS?

Julie: I work in theater as a lighting designer so I tend to be in the theater a lot. If I’m not in the theater, I am in the garden.
Latrawanda: For fun I like to dance or go to Six Flags.

What’s something interesting about you that not a lot of people know?

Julie: I love to draw. I don’t take enough time to do it, but I really love it.
Latrawanda: I like to eat a lot. I’m very skinny so I don’t think people would expect that.

What’s your favorite thing about each other?

Julie: Latrawanda’s smile and laugh. We laugh a lot together.
Latrawanda: You can talk to Julie. You can share a secret with Julie. And sometimes she makes funny facial expressions. You can open up to her.

What’s your favorite book that you’ve read together?

Both: Drama by Raina Telgemeier

What would your pen name be?

Latrawanda: Probably “Unicorn Girl”. Because if I were an author I’d probably write lots of books about unicorns and rainbows.
Julie: I do lighting and my last name is Mack, so I kind of like “Mack Light”.

If you could only eat one pizza topping for the rest of your life, what would you choose?

Julie: Definitely pepperoni.
Latrawanda: Probably cheese if it’s what I have to have for the rest of my life.

Would you rather have clown feet or clown hair? Why?

Latrawanda: Clown hair because it’s a rainbow and I like rainbows. And if I styled it, it would be so cute!
Julie: Also clown hair. It’d be hard to walk in clown feet. But you could do a lot with clown hair.

Anything else?

Latrawanda: I love Julie.
Julie: I love LA!

WITS Favorite Literacy and Learning Apps

by Elizabeth Kristoff, Grants & Foundations Manager

Literacy and Learning Apps

In honor of National App Day, we asked the WITS team to share their favorite literacy and learning apps. Learn more about the apps WITS uses to expand vocabulary, find books, and even brush up on their bilingual skills!


Through the “HelloTalk” app I can connect with native speakers of different languages from all over the world. I’ve used the app to improve my Japanese and having multiple language partners.
– Nick Colbert, Program Coordinator


Twitter is my favorite app to keep up to date with awesome literacy nonprofit work and my favorite authors and publishers. It might not be widely considered as a learning/reading app, but hear me out. I learn so much from the accounts I follow. For example, I follow Chicago Books to Women in Prison (@ChicagoBWP) to learn about what books are in high need for their collection so that I can see if I can contribute. I follow University of Chicago Professor Eve Ewing (@eveewing), an author who writes about the Chicago Public School system. Drawn and Quarterly (@DandQ) is an awesome publisher of graphic novels and I’ve read so many of the books they promote on their account. Finally, of course I follow WITS (@WITSChicago) to keep up to date with all the cool things happening across our programs.
– Eleanor Dollear, Program Coordinator


Now that I’ve moved past my “post-grad school, reading is such a chore” feeling, Goodreads has been so handy. I use it to track the books I want to read and to mark my progress on a 40-book reading challenge I set for myself in January. One more book to go!
– Annie Kennedy, Community Manager

Chicago Public Library App

If you don’t have the Chicago Public Library app on your phone, do you even work for WITS? Seriously, this is probably my favorite reading app. I can call books from anywhere! I can renew! I can search for, download, and play audio books! I can reserve spots at exclusive author events. Oh, and I can read books! Seriously, the CPL app is amazing.
– Mia Valdez-Quellhorst, Director of Teacher Programs

Merriam Webster App

I like the Merriam Webster app for looking up words (there’s an audio feature so you can hear how a word is pronounced, too) and the Chicago Public Library app for putting books on hold and borrowing ebooks!
– Ellen Werner, Program Director

Literacy is a Human Right

by Eleanor Dollear, Program Coordinator


UNESCO asserts, “Literacy is a fundamental human right and the foundation for lifelong learning. It is fully essential to social and human development in its ability to transform lives. For individual, families, and societies alike, it is an instrument of empowerment to improve one’s health, ones’ income, and one’s relationship with the world.”

WITS understands this and creates opportunities for every student in Chicago to be literate and grow into a passionate reader.
Being able to read and write allows for meaningful participation in the world. At its base, being able to read means knowing what ingredients are in food, understanding what bus line goes to work, taking the correct prescription drug. Furthermore, reading provides insight into other cultures and lifestyles and helps students understand complex topics.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a plan of action from the United Nations to strengthen universal peace and eradicate poverty by the year 2030. Universal literacy is a part of this plan, “ensur[ing] that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy.”

According to a report published by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, there are proven advantages to being proficient in reading by the third grade. Students who are reading at grade level in the third grade are more likely to graduate high school, less likely to be incarcerated, more likely to find high-paying jobs, and more likely to have a longer lifespan. It is because of these statistics that the WITS Mid-Day Mentoring program primarily serves third grade students.

Beyond taking students to new places, being able to read is vital. Join our movement and help create opportunities for every student in Chicago to be literate.

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