Back to the Office and Back to the Classroom: How WITS Creates Community across Chicago’s Neighborhoods 

Tena LatonaInside WITS, Mission & Outcomes

For 791 days (give or take what you will) we have been working in some form of professional athleisure; repurposing surfaces in our home normally reserved for eating or sleeping and juggling—literally—everything. 

We’ve changed in the time since we last saw our colleagues all in one room in March 2020.  We’ve learned that suits don’t define our ability to schmooze clients. We’ve learned that working on spreadsheets alone in our homes without cubicle distractions is quite productive. We’ve learned that people matter, relationships matter, and communities matter. 

Chicago can do more to lean into these values than any other city in America by focusing on its strong public–private partnerships. It is possible to envision offices that are built around engagements that strengthen our whole city and to use human resources as investments in what our neighborhoods need.  

That is where WITS comes in. 

What Our Students Need Is Us 
Tena reading with Yassine

Over the last two years WITS has met the needs of our school communities by providing consistent and safe virtual literacy programming to teachers and students. As we consult with principals to commence planning for the 2022-2023 program year, we continue to hear the need for in-person programs articulated. Educators believe that one-on-one, in-person programs can not only help students overcome unfinished learning challenges—they will also fulfill a need for social interaction with a consistent, caring adult—which is exactly what WITS programs provide.

Chicago Public School (CPS) principal at Rodolfo Lozano Bilingual and International Magnet School Maria Campos writes of the need for WITS’ engagement:

“Our strong partnership with WITS and Exelon allowed us to not skip a beat even through the pandemic.  We pivoted quickly and swiftly to continue to impact our students. As schools start to feel more normal, it is important that we rebuild the whole school community. And that means volunteer and community partner engagement. WITS is a key part of our school’s literacy initiatives. And now, these resources have taken on a whole new meaning as we emerge from this” 

Back to the Classroom

In the fall of 2022 WITS will meet that need for engagement by activating the largest group of year-long corporate volunteers in CPS. WITS has partnered with hundreds of Chicago corporations of all sizes since 1999 to build bridges from The Loop to our neighborhoods—all on the foundation that reading matters. By connecting corporate mentors with CPS students, WITS student mentor programs build foundational reading skills and positive self-identity.  

When volunteers see first-hand the needs and opportunities of the students, as well as the benefit of individualized support, partner organizations and individual mentors increase their investment in the school’s success and return to WITS year after year. Daniel Emanuel, Front Desk Manager at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel (CAA), shares of his involvement with WITS: “It means the world to me that my employer supports WITS at all levels within our corporation. From our leadership team to our front-line team, it truly is amazing to be a witness to the relationship CAA has with this community commitment.”    

At no cost to schools and students, WITS programming is a critical piece in addressing the lagging literacy skills of elementary students in Chicago and nationwide. These learning gaps disproportionately affected low income and urban schools with high Black and Hispanic populations. As of September 2021, CPS counts 82.6% of its student population as Black and Hispanic, and 69.8% qualify for free or reduced lunch. The federal government has invested an unprecedented $190 billion (about $580 per person in the US) in education through the CARES Act to address the learning needs of this generation with a generous portion earmarked to recruit and pay tutors. CPS will use a portion of their funds to recruit 500-600 paid and trained tutors to provide intentional high dosage tutoring in reading and math in schools identified as hit hardest by the pandemic through an impact and opportunity assessment. 

Corporate Partnerships

WITS strategically collaborates with corporations that prioritize initiatives valuing the power of education in empowering low-income communities of color. Partners like William Blair, Exelon, Jackson Financial/PPM America, Bank of America, Jones Day, and GCM Grosvenor are leading employee return to office initiatives see WITS as an opportunity for meaningful staff engagement.

Laura Coy, Head of Philanthropy Strategy and ESG Integration at William Blair writes, “We continue to activate our Workplace Mentoring Program with LEARN Hunter Perkins Academy, and our employees are addressing one of the most pressing needs of the pandemic: the unfinished learning of many CPS students.” 

Community Need Meets Corporate Activation 

At the City Club of Chicago luncheon on April 19, Mayor Lori Lightfoot described The Loop as the beating heart of our city: central to Chicago commerce bouncing back. She talked extensively about how The Loop is a key economic driver for both the Chicago corporate community and neighborhood investment. We have learned that we do not have to be in The Loop every day, but when we are, let’s make it count.  

We need you in the office so you can share new experiences with students who have had few in their short lives. Think of this: the last time our third graders had a normal school year they were in kindergarten. Imagine all the experiences they never had. Exelon Foundation President Paula Conrad shares about the corporation’s excitement to return to the office: “Exelon is proud to have had 100 employees volunteer with WITS during our partnership.  While our virtual program with Lozano was a great way to stay connected, our volunteers are excited to welcome students back to our headquarters buildings for in-person tutoring and friendship. I hope that others companies will join us in re-engaging colleagues through a partnership with WITS and deserving students in Chicago.”

Hibbard Kindergartner Adelin 

Our worlds have been smaller: confined to a couple rooms and screens. As WITS returns to in-person programming—we return to the vastness that reading allows us. Students once again will have unique opportunities to learn more about themselves and the world around them alongside their peers and reading mentors. WITS student mentor programs are designed for students to have positive experiences with reading. Having joyful learning experiences is key to skill development. As students aggregate positive experiences with learning, they are more likely to want to engage with that activity again. Recent studies have found that our youngest students nationwide are missing critical reading benchmarks. In 2019, our last full year of in-person programming, 86% of WITS students outperformed the national average in beginning of year to end of year reading level growth. Together we can address the needs of our students. 

This is what #returntooffice means when you are part of WITS student mentor programs: community engagement, purposeful interactions, building empathy, and meeting the needs of our school communities.

We will see you on the yellow school bus in October.  

WITS 2016, Brett Bulthuis