WITS and Mentorships: Building a Community for Young Readers in CPS

By: Michelle Campos and Sharon Delavega

Photo: Michelle Campos

As of June 2018, Illinois proposed to pass a budget to aid the ongoing budget crisis.  While Illinois expects this will help improve their situation, public schools are still suffering from the lack of funding. CPS has less resources to aid their performance in literacy and require organizations to help strengthen their curriculum.

Resources to aid literacy in Chicago

Teachers and schools do their best to offer parents the best resources to improve their child’s literacy skills. Chicago Public Library’s Homework Help Program, offers free tutoring sessions for any student with access to a Chicago Public Library. This program also offers online tutoring sessions for students even after their local library is closed. While this resource is an excellent aid to a student’s education, finding programs that build communities can last them a lifetime.

Working In The Schools and their role with literacy

Located in the West Loop of Chicago, WITS is a non-profit organization that CPS students can use to strengthen their literacy skills and build relationships that will go beyond eighth grade graduation. Because WITS is non-profit, it costs schools and students nothing to invite volunteers in their building and work one on one with students and build their literacy skills. Every year, WITS hosts a fundraising event to keep the program going and reach out to more schools across CPS.    

Additionally, WITS offers support for teachers through the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award. A network for teachers to utilize and improve their classrooms through development programs, study groups, building their teacher network with fellow awardees, and grants are offered to help build their classroom library.

CEO Brenda Langstraat said the program helps teachers build their classroom libraries, adding that  “many schools don’t have budgets for libraries and librarians, so books in the classroom are essential.”

According to the website, WITS has assisted 5,400 teachers and has donated 25,000 books.

Why are programs like WITS needed?

Literacy data in Chicago

The Chicago Literacy Coalition discussed that an estimated 30 percent of adults in Chicago, roughly 882,000, possess low literacy skills.

Why does this matter?

According to the Literacy Coalition, people face health care costs that are four times higher compared to people who have high literacy skills. Obtaining public assistance can be 14 percent to 45 percent higher, and their children are 60 percent more likely to need special and remedial education if they don’t have academic intervention at an early stage in schooling.  

Literacy Works discussed how lacking literacy skills affect people’s goals related to employment, parenting, and participating within one’s’ community.  

Read To Grow also mentions how people with low literacy skills often drop out of school and face risks of poverty, strains within families, and lasting personal effects.

Valerie Strauss, from The Washington Post, mentioned how low literacy skills have severe consequences for next generations, communities, and the city at large, but innovative programs are being aimed at interrupting the cycle.

While there have been some developments in literacy, there are still challenges in the education system.

Partners in Learning reports that literacy is a learned skill meaning that if parents can’t read nor write, then children will have a harder time attributing these skills.

There is a need for programs and services that can help adults with learning these basic skills, but the problem can be combated by helping the youth. Helping promote literacy skills in children and teenagers so they can be prepared as adults.

Literacy in students

A 2016 Chicago Sun-Times  article reported  reading scores in CPS that showed only one in four students were able to read at their grade level and when they looked at the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers reading tests, it was noted that there was a 1.5 percent decrease from 2015 to 2016.

When regarding recent PARCC scores for 2018 in Chicago, it can be seen that the ELA (English Language Arts) score of the students who are ready for the next level is 28 percent. This means that 72 percent of students are either approaching expectations or not meeting expectations.

In 2015, the Chicago Reporter published an article where they reviewed a video that remarked how Chicago schools were the worst in the nation. It was mentioned that in the past there were financial mismanagement, high numbers of dropouts and truancy occurring, and bad test scores within Chicago schools. Now, student outcomes are better but there are still challenges, like a budget crisis, occurring.

What CPS can do to help

It is challenging for schools to find free or affordable resources that will strengthen student’s skills and provide strong networks for these students to depend on. Additionally, while access to a CPL is typically convenient, it’s not always ideal for working families, internet access might be limited, and some locations might not have the funds to run a tutoring program.  

Schools oftentimes lack funding to offer resources conveniently located within their building. That’s why programs such as WITS can make a big difference in CPS. The support and assistance they receive allows the program to expand and reach out to more students in need.

The difference WITS can make

Sara Martinez, program coordinator for WITS, mentioned how WITS has helped positive growth outcome in education for one of the schools that participated with the program.

“One of our students in our Washington Irving program-we were with third grade students- and typically like eight to nine students get held back every year, since third grade is a retention year, but last year we worked with them and only two students got held back. The principal thought it was because of WITS, and WITS definitely helped, and also the teachers,” Martinez said.

Martinez goes on to discuss the importance of literacy and the program by mentioning different resources they offer.

“We also pride ourselves with having a large collection of culturally diverse books that we think are really beneficial that most, or some, classroom libraries may not have,” Martinez said.

A stack of books used during WITS at Rodolfo Lozano Bilingual & International Center Elementary Photo: Michelle Campos


WITS Development and Communications Manager, Eric Coleman, explains further the importance of expanding a personal library. When students are improving their skills, the quality of their libraries can make a difference. Finding books that suit their interests and keep them engaged can encourage them to continue their love for reading. According to the WITS website, “70% of students exceed national average for annual reading level growth” .

They’re more than a tutor

Another important component WITS focuses on is building relationships. Langstraat said these relationships differ from the relationship a student will have with their teacher. While the relationships with the teacher is essential, extending that network of support will provide extra support.

“Research indicates for positive youth development; our students need caring adults who are mentoring them in their lives…[the volunteers] are not family members or educators. There’s something unique about a student working with someone that he or she knows they’re volunteering their time to be with them and really care about them,” Langstraat explains.

These relationships aid positive attitudes the students will have towards reading and build a new appreciation for education.The WITS website, states that, “67 percent of students increase positive attitudes toward reading.  

Eric Coleman has also seen the impact the literacy program makes to CPS schools up close

“It’s always so nice to see students arriving at our program excited to see their mentors and when they’re like, ‘Oh, our time is done already?’ “ Coleman said. “You can tell their enthusiasm is building…when they’re getting excited about this you know that it’s translating to them becoming excited about reading, excited about learning and being engaged in academic activities.”

A student’s literacy skills goes beyond the pages of a book. While it’s important for teachers to modify their curriculum for the student’s particular need, there is also the necessity for a student to have that support system that keeps the student’s love with reading alive. WITS demonstrates that students benefit working with the kind of people that make the child feel like their accomplishments are not motivated by any kind of pressure such as a standardized test or assessment.

When speaking with Langstraat, she mentions that other schools outside of Illinois have observed WITS and worked to develop similar programs. With that in mind, having access to more programs like WITS for more schools around Chicago will bring more enthusiasm and inspiration for a student’s love for reading.

Author: sharondelavega

This website is for Mike Reilley's journalism class.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s