2020 ANNUAL REPORT

TOGETHERNESS

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MESSAGE FROM OUR CEO, TENA LATONA

2020.

Where to begin?

Where I always do, with our values: Community. Consistency. Empowerment. These are more than words to us at WITS. They are the cornerstones upon which we build all we do. When we had to rebuild WITS to meet the myriad challenges of 2020, these were the first bricks we put down.

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The definition of togetherness is "the state of being close to another person or other people."

2020 taught us that physical proximity cannot be the only way we define togetherness. WITS has spearheaded stretching the meaning of this word beyond proximity by creating digital spaces and cultivating community through discussion.

In one week, from Monday, March 9 to Monday, March 13, we went from bringing thousands of people together weekly across this city to recreating what that would look like virtually for the next year.

Only one month after suspending all WITS programs, we launched Empowering Readers at Home – a literacy resource page that included a portal for WITS mentors to submit encouraging messages to their partner students. 

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Since April 2020, over 320 messages have been shared with students.

Workshop facilitators adjusted their curriculum content and structure to ensure workshops were accessible and meaningful to Awardees.

WITS adapted our Early Childhood Summer Program (ECSP) to a free online learning space for pre-k through first grade students. WITS addressed the connectivity gap among our schools by partnering with the Chicago Public Library Foundation to print and deliver 4,000 copies of ECSP Activity Books to 81 libraries across Chicago.

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In a year characterized by inconsistency, we worked closely with our CPS principals and administrators to be a reliable part of their literacy curriculum. WITS serves the same communities year after year, taking direction from school leaders to shape how WITS supports long-term academic goals. Our students count on us to provide stable, safe, and caring adult relationships. In no small feat, we were able to maintain programming with nearly all our schools and corporate partners starting in September 2020.

WITS’ 2020-2021 Virtual Program brought together 2nd-8th grade students with volunteers for shared reading, mentorship, and community building. Teams of readers read aloud from EPIC!, a robust online library of children’s books. We made sure that our virtual program was a positive and safe space for students to be themselves during this uncertain time.

WITS invested in the devices, software, and platform subscriptions necessary to create and deliver quality online resources and programs. While at home, WITS staff was able to facilitate virtual mentoring sessions, film video read-alouds of books, and produce engaging curricula for the benefit of the entire WITS community.

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Throughout 2020, America was awakened again and again to its history of systemic racism. We redefined and recommitted to being an ally in dismantling these systems and empowering the voices of our Black and Brown community members. With this awareness, we committed to rebuilding the frameworks to be an actively antiracist organization.

  • We committed to developing a Board that is more reflective of the communities we serve.
  • We started offering yearly antiracism training for our volunteers and invested in ongoing professional development for our staff.
  • We sought to partner with companies whose cultures and businesses reflect antiracist values and practices.
  • We formed a book club featuring books by Black and Brown authors to foster conversation and build a culture of antiracism.
  • We continued to actively promote Black and Brown authors of children’s books in our work with students, teachers, and the public.

We did all of this because we stuck together in 2020. We built on our values. We trusted our community. You trusted us. In a year that many are happy to leave behind, I’m happy to share all that brought WITS together this past year.

2021. We are ready.

WHAT THE WITS MISSION MEANS TO ME

Tra'Lisha Renteria, Program Specialist

Some of my favorite memories from childhood involve going to the local bookstore with my grandmother. From third through fifth grade, on Fridays after my grandmother got paid, she would give me and my sisters book money. She would drive us to the bookstore and let us roam the aisles, picking whatever books we wanted to read. My grandmother empowered me and my sisters to choose books for ourselves and no one else. These are some of my favorite moments from childhood because I was in control of my reading experience and I was able to discover new interests through books. I did not realize this at the time, but the trips to the bookstore were helping shape my identity as a reader.

I see this same transformation happen with my students in WITS programs. My favorite part of facilitating programs is watching students develop their reading identity. There are some students who come to WITS and they already know what it is they want to read. They are eager and ready to pick out books on day one. For other students, they are unsure of what types of books they want to read or what it is they want to read about. Those students may find it challenging to pick a book in front of their mentors or other WITS students. During weekly WITS sessions in their joyful reading teams, students drive the experience – students can read at their own pace, make their own choices about what they want (and do not want) to read, and choose to read aloud themselves or have their mentors read aloud to them. The support, flexibility, and acceptance that WITS mentors provide ensures that all students, regardless of how they enter program, leave program as curious and engaged readers wanting to continue to explore their interests.

I did not have WITS as a child, but WITS mirrors the experiences I had with my grandmother taking me to the bookstore. We offer a welcoming space for students who are at different stages in their journey to identifying as readers, and together, our mentors and students create a collection of positive memories around reading. The WITS mission reflects how much fun reading can be when students feel inspired and engaged in what they are reading, and how cultivating the love of reading in students sets them up for lifelong success.

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Providing Consistent, Positive Support for WITS Students

Elizabeth Kristoff, Grants & Foundation Relations Manager

In 2020, WITS began its virtual program, a space for students and mentors to engage in shared reading and community building. This program took months to prepare and involved collaboration with principals, teachers, corporate partners, and mentors.

“I was…elated that the 2020-2021 program was launching undeterred by the ongoing pandemic,” shares Owen Meacham, a mentor from Chapman & Cutler. “The students seem so happy for the opportunity to take a break from online learning to spend time with their WITS mentors to read, work on fun projects, and talk about their experiences in and out of school.

While figuring out how to deliver engaging virtual mentorship programs, WITS also had to rethink how to train and support mentors so they could handle technical logistics while also mentoring students during a particularly vulnerable time.

“Despite the challenges associated with managing online meetings, the WITS staff has worked tirelessly to adapt to the stay-at-home environment and each time we meet with the students, the process becomes more refined. I am very thankful for the opportunity to participate in such a rewarding experience.”

Owen and his coworkers meet on Thursday mornings with second graders from Penn Elementary. In reading teams of three to four, mentors and students read aloud books from the digital library, EPIC! and participate in team-building activities.

“Virtual programs present both opportunities and challenges,” says Delaney Earley, a WITS Program Coordinator who leads four virtual programs. “The patience and persistence that WITS mentors demonstrate is an essential first step in supporting students from a distance.”

Though reading will always be at the heart of what WITS does, this year we realize the importance of providing consistent, positive support for our students. During this unsettling time of our students’ childhood, it is especially important for WITS to provide a sense of belonging, structure, and fun.

WHAT DID WE ACCOMPLISH IN 2020?

Meet Atticus and Elliot May

Elizabeth Kristoff, Grants & Foundation Relations Manager

We are all going through a lot of change. As adults, we are adjusting to new habits, routines, and responsibilities. It can be overwhelming, and whether you exercise, bake bread, or pour your energy into home improvement – carving out time for self-care is important. Just as it is for adults, it’s also essential for young people to have a space to re-set, reconnect, and feel like themselves again.

Twin brothers Atticus and Elliot May were startled when their academic and social routines abruptly stopped. “I didn’t even know it was the last day of school for a while,” Atticus remembers. “I thought it was gonna be a regular day.”

Both Atticus and Elliot participated in the WITS Workplace Mentoring Program with their classmates at Walsh Elementary in Pilsen. The twins were disappointed when program ended unexpectedly, but through the WITS Empowering Readers at Home mentor portal, they received warm messages from their mentors, encouraging them to keep reading and stay positive.

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“Even though the pandemic has stopped us from going into school, real school,” Atticus says, “it still hasn’t stopped us from being a community.”

After school ends for the day, Atticus and Elliot do online meetups to keep in touch with friends outside the virtual classroom environment. “I love learning and all,” Elliot shares, “but sometimes I just want to kick back relax and talk with my friends and just have fun. When you’re on that meeting…it’s like you’re at recess.”

With nearly two months of distance learning complete, we have begun WITS Virtual Program at our partner schools, including Walsh Elementary. With your help, these weekly sessions with peers and mentors will bring students an exciting, joyful addition to their remote learning routine.

Teachers Create Community Online At Summer Institute

Kristen Strobbe, Chief Program Officer

On a packed Zoom meeting in early August, twenty educators talked about the importance of incorporating Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in their literacy instruction. Guiding the conversation was Laurie Brooks, WITS curriculum manager. Laurie does not believe SEL should be a separate part of instruction that is set aside for certain activities. SEL is so important that it needs to be weaved into every aspect of teaching.

The educators at the meeting were participants in WITS’ latest cohort of Rochelle Lee Teacher Awardees (RLTA), and the SEL workshop was part of Summer Institute – when WITS provides literacy professional development for awardees over the course of six weeks. Summer Institute usually takes place at the Literacenter, with teachers meeting to socialize, network, and improve their practice. However, COVID-19 meant that WITS had to quickly adapt from offering Summer Institute in person to becoming a fully virtual experience.

Teachers As Facilitators Leading the Way

During the early stages of switching from in-person to virtual, WITS wanted to maintain the quality of workshops and the overall learning experience for educators. Daphne Robinson, WITS’ program and operations manager, reached out to every presenter to adjust the timing of workshops to better accommodate the virtual learning. WITS works with teachers to facilitate most of the workshops and they found innovative ways to present their information in engaging ways – from using breakout rooms to have small group discussions to using Pear Deck and Nearpod for a more interactive experience. Viewing the workshops on these new platforms allows for educators to become familiar with them as options for remote learning, and for teachers to create community online.

By the end of Summer Institute, WITS will have offered nearly forty professional development workshops on topics including: SEL in the Literacy Classroom, Using the Google Suite in Readers and Writers Workshop, and Building Emotional Literacy Through Conscious Discipline. WITS is responsive to educators aspiring to improve their practice, and we know the variety of workshops appeals to teachers who are taking charge of their professional development. We are proud to say that we were able to keep all planned workshops in the transition to the virtual workshops.

Learning and Sharing On Zoom

During the SEL workshop, as teachers introduced themselves, a few mentioned having technical difficulties and joked about having to ask their children to help them increase the volume on Zoom. Everyone laughed. Later, Laurie had the educators share their literacy autobiography – sharing what they remember about learning to read and their relationship to books and stories as a young person. Teachers posted their autobiography in the chat, and others responded. It was a special moment that set the tone for a welcoming and safe learning space.

The WITS community of teachers are tuning in from home, through their computer screens. As teachers create community online, they are still making connections, learning from each other, growing through shared experiences, and cultivating hope about the school year ahead.

WITS Volunteers came Together to Support Students

Sara Martinez, Former WITS Program Coordinator

Last school year, WITS looked a bit different. Programs were completely virtual from November 2020 through May 2021. The WITS community came together, made virtual programs possible, and ensured students maintained normal routines during remote learning. Our corporate partners, who play an integral part in ensuring WITS programming occurs every year, committed to continuing their partnerships with virtual programs to support students in new and exciting ways. In the below interviews from October 22, 2020, two volunteers share why they chose to continue mentoring during the 2020-2021 school year.

Lincoln Abbey - CME Group Volunteer

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A WITS VOLUNTEER?

Last year was my first year. I shared a student with another mentor, alternating weeks. The season was cut short due to the pandemic, so I think I only did half a dozen actual program sessions with my student. As a result, I still feel pretty new to all this.

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO MENTOR THIS YEAR?

The WITS program seems to be really well run, and to perform a valuable service in our community. I’m impressed by that. I don’t come across that combination a lot. My company makes it easy for me to participate; they want me to participate. And the kids are great. They’re kids: they’re fun, they’re curious, they’re rambunctious. As youngsters facing tough challenges, they deserve support and encouragement. If I can help one of them a little bit, out of the store of time, flexibility, and educational privilege I enjoy, that makes me feel good.

WHAT ARE YOU HOPING TO GET OUT OF WITS THIS YEAR?

Well, my first thought was too idealistic — that I don’t want to get anything out of WITS, I only want to give something back to WITS. But that’s not true — that’s not realistic, or sustainable. What I expect to get out of WITS is a feeling that I am, or at least may be, doing even a little bit of good for a student, and maybe by extension one or two of the teachers and WITS staff. I meet these people — the kids, the WITS staff, the teachers — and I like them and I respect their aims and struggles. It just feels good to support them in this small way.

Stephen Roach - Exelon Volunteer

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A WITS VOLUNTEER?

I have been volunteering with WITS in the workplace mentoring program since 2013.

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO MENTOR THIS YEAR?

WITS is a wonderful program for students and mentors. Over the years, I have watched students grow from reluctant to confident readers all while having a great time. I always leave WITS feeling energized and fulfilled. For those reasons and so many more, I would have been back regardless, but this year it feels even more important to volunteer with WITS. Students, teachers, and parents are dealing with so many challenges right now and this is a small way that I can help.

WHAT ARE YOU HOPING TO GET OUT OF WITS THIS YEAR?

I am hoping to get students excited about reading, build relationships, and have fun!

Jackson/PPM America x WITS

Ana Porta, Former WITS Marketing Coordinator

Jackson/PPM America volunteers have partnered with WITS since 2017, originally partnering with Jenner Academy and bridging the transition for the Jenner/Ogden merger in 2018. Volunteers meet with third graders on a weekly basis, helping them make the connection from learning to read to reading to learn. Third grade is a crucial year for young learners, as they begin to integrate their reading skills with comprehension and discussion about elements of a book, summarizing, making connections, and determining the main idea.

Jackson/PPM America volunteer David Felden began volunteering with WITS  in Fall of 2018. He says of his experience in the program, “Jackson does a great job of promoting WITS within the company, and everyone who participates has nothing but good things to say. I knew I enjoyed working with kids and figured this was a perfect opportunity. WITS provides a great way to share & help grow an enthusiasm for reading with the kids at Ogden. I know I appreciate those who helped me enjoy reading when I was growing up, so I figured I’d do my best to return the favor!”

Reading with his student Teonn over the course of two program years brought him a sense of pride and satisfaction in their relationship. He says, “Some of my favorite memories are the times I could see him realizing that he really did have the ability to read on his own. Whether it was a page or a full book, there was a lightbulb moment when he finished reading where he genuinely was proud of what he accomplished. Always a very cool thing to see in real time.”

In 2020, as part of the UnGala series of events, WITS honored Jackson/PPM America as our Corporate Partner of the Year. Their ongoing service, dedication, and care for students through their support and participation in programming is an asset to the organization.

Margaret Siber: Generous Investment Supports the Future of WITS

Ashley Bloom, Chief Development Officer

When retired pediatrician Dr. Margaret Siber thinks about WITS, she remembers how her passion started for helping young people. “Since I spent my career watching children grow and develop, WITS gives me this great opportunity to continue what is my passion.  I love watching the kindergartners developing their reading skills week by week.”

After moving into Brookdale Senior Living and befriending current WITS Kindergarten volunteers she joined the program. “The WITS program certainly piqued my interest,” Dr. Siber says. “I felt that such a program would be extremely important to children who may have had little exposure to reading.  It seemed to me that WITS would provide me the opportunity to make the world a better place.

For over 10 years, Dr. Margaret Siber has mentored students at Drake Elementary School in Bronzeville. She enjoyed getting to know her students’ interests, watching their growth and sharing conversations about each other’s lives - all while reading stories.

Foundation of Giving

Dr. Siber's passion for others has been a life-long journey, starting back to when she was in medical school at McGill Medical School in Montreal, Canada. “Participating in WITS is an extension of activities I have been involved with during and after medical school.  As one of six second-year medical students, I helped start a storefront clinic in a low-income area of Montreal. My primary responsibility was to call our professors to ask them to see patients at the clinic for an evening.  It was with great trepidation I made those calls, but every single professor I called agreed to volunteer his other time.”

The clinic she helped start celebrated their fiftieth anniversary last year. This significant time in her life led her to seek other philanthropic opportunities. “This successful social action was most gratifying. Investing a little time, some energy, and perhaps some skills to WITS felt like a very worthwhile endeavor.”

Leading the way

Thanks to a generous investment from Dr. Siber, WITS is closer to being able to deliver on our strategic vision. For many years, WITS focused on serving as many schools and students as possible. Our rapid growth elevated WITS as a leader in advancing CPS literacy. Instead of continuing to grow, WITS is now honing our approach by designing and facilitating programs that drive student outcomes. WITS has developed a strategic plan that will focus on layering programs, adapting program design and improving evaluation metrics. We want to ensure literacy is possible for every student we serve. Dr. Siber shares that vision.

[Data] shows that children who participate in WITS Kindergarten do better in reading scores than their peers.  I hope that the program can be extended to more CPS schools.  And I hope that information regarding the success of WITS can be disseminated to school systems throughout the country.”

We are beyond grateful for Dr. Margaret Siber's lead gift in WITS Strategic Vision.

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Togetherness in Virtual Events

Alex Michel, Corporate Partnerships & Events Manager

Even in the best circumstances, event planning is tough. Event planning during a global pandemic, when no one can gather in person, is nearly impossible.

After all, WITS’ events, much like our programs, are built to bring people together. For the past four years we have been fortunate enough to throw 600+ person galas—evenings of sharing the WITS story and dancing the night away. On top of our annual gala, we have had smaller events—annual meetings, WITS Talks, Associates Board Happy Hours, and more. The WITS community likes to spend time together. Something we have often taken for granted.

So how did we create something unique to WITS and enticing enough for even the most Zoom-ed out person to want to attend? Well, we planned an UnGala.

The idea of the UnGala was structured on the essence of the traditional gala. To figure out what this unusual event would look like, we wondered what people missed the most about in-person events: Cocktail Hours? Programs? Catered Dinners? Storytelling? Why not include it all? In fact, why not let people choose which of the parts they wanted to attend?

With the help of the WITS Associates Board, we launched the first section of the UnGala - two events in Fall 2020 that engaged attendees across the country: Curious Cocktails and the Duchess’ Cooking Class. Associates Board members, WITS staff, friends, and volunteers learned how to mix cocktails and cook fall-inspired dinners. Cocktail hours and catered dinners, done!

The next portion was to design was the “program” portion of the event—traditionally made up of speeches, awards, and videos. As someone who has planned events and been to more than I can count, this is always hard to keep interesting. We had to be extra creative to keep audiences engaged after already spending 12+ hours staring at their screens. We wanted the program to reflect our value of community-building, which—though tested this year—has become even more important. Through a panel discussion, we shared the remote education experience of a principal, teacher, parent, and a set of twin fourth graders from Walsh Elementary. The WITS community got a unique glimpse into what each member of the school community was going through, and how WITS programs helped create a virtual community. Through the virtual platform we were able to give space for our community members to be heard in a way that could not happen previously due to time and schedule constrictions.

For the live final event, The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, we needed to be authentically WITS and completely safe when filming. We also needed to tell the story of how our program team reinvented program since March and highlight our honorees under forty minutes. It was no small feat.

The WITS team, namely, our marketing department of one, persevered. We created a thirty five-minute program that illustrated how we have adapted this year and highlighted voices from across the organization. The chat room was busy throughout the pre-recorded live stream. People sent messages to staff, connected with other mentors and friends, and shared good wishes and thoughts for the organization. For the first time in a long time, we were together, if only online.

This past year has been a challenge, but the WITS community has found inventive ways to stay connected. I for one and am excited to see you all when “Club WITS” re-opens in Fall 2022. This is your official invitation to join us again and celebrate the work of an organization that I am so proud to support.

making it happen

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The WITS team went above and beyond in 2020. Without the tenacity, imagination, patience, and knowledge of these individuals WITS would not have been able to maintain such a high level of work during a global pandemic. 

KEEPING US TOGETHER

We gratefully acknowledge the individuals, foundations, and corporations that charitably supported the WITS mission in 2020. Our donors play a crucial role in fulfilling our mission and vision. Thank you.

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Our donors are our backbone. They make WITS possible.

When we needed to shift our programs to be virtual and online, our donors helped us lay a foundation to keep programming consistent for our students.

When we realized there was a gap in accessibility for online programs, our partners and donors made it possible to ship literacy activities to our community members homes.

Thank you for ensuring consistent programming for our students. 75% of our donations go directly to program needs.