School Focus: Penn Elementary School


The auditorium at William Penn Elementary is a large space, with ceilings two stories high, and seating for hundreds. But scattered here and there, pairs of readers sit together, enjoying the close, personal experience of reading a book together. The WITS magic is happening!

The volunteers and students that make up each pair have been reading together since early October. The 15 third graders in the program represent a range of reading abilities. For some, this is their second year in WITS. But for all of them, WITS is a special treat each Wednesday, a time when they can read just for fun.

“What I love about WITS,” says Jon, a long time BMO volunteer, “is that it’s not about teaching kids to read.It’s about encouraging kids to love reading. Jeremiah is so excited every week to record the books he has read, and often wants to go back to books he read before.”

Today, Jeremiah and Jon polish off 3 chapter books in no time, before turning back to a chapter book they’ve been working their way through. Jon takes several opportunities during the session to brag about Jeremiah’s reading, and Jeremiah is clearly pleased.

“I’m just happy to be part of his enthusiasm for reading!”

While this is their third year reading with students at Penn, BMO Harris employees have been volunteering with WITS since 2007. Over the years, each veteran BMO volunteer has read with several students, taken dozens of bus rides, and read hundreds of books!

New BMO volunteers are being added to the group regularly, however. It’s incredible how quickly they are able form a genuine bond with their students, and how much they are able to improve their reading confidence.

Michael Koehler, a new volunteer with wits this year, comments, “Volunteering with WITS has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done since moving back to Chicago. It’s amazing to see the progress that [my student] has already made in a little more than half of a school year.”

As reading wraps up for the day, students and volunteers return their books, pencils and folders and line up. It’s a bit of a free-for-all to see who gets to be line leader. Today, Jeremiah wins the prize. As volunteers file past to get on the bus, saying their ‘goodbyes’ and ‘good jobs,’ Jon and Jeremiah exchange their secret handshake, a weekly ritual.

Another great week of WITS at Penn, in the books.


Fiona Hays, Program Coordinator