Thirty years ago, WITS did not exist as we know it today. In 1991, two years before WITS filed for its articles of incorporation becoming an official not-for-profit organization, Joanne Alter and Marion Stone began a grassroots volunteering movement in just a single classroom in the Cabrini Green neighborhood. Long before volunteers put in 38,725 hours of literacy mentorship support and thousands of books went home with students each year, WITS operated as a single program. Joanne, Marion, and their close friends partnered with individual teachers, volunteering directly in their classrooms during the school day to support students’ needs. The program that these two passionate retirees created would evolve over the years into what is now called the Classroom Reading Tutor (CRT) program. It was from the CRT program’s humble beginnings that WITS became the organization that activates more volunteers in Chicago Public Schools than any other group or association.
The Classroom Reading Tutor Program has changed significantly since its inception. Classroom Assistants, as they were originally called, paired up with teachers to help in any way they could – this ranged from literacy support to grading homework to preparing materials for the class. Now, partnerships are more purposefully formed with a specific literacy goal-focused lens. Teachers and volunteers meet with a WITS staff member at the beginning of the year to discuss classroom objectives, possible interventions or supports that the volunteer can implement, and discuss best methods of communication to ensure the partnership can maximize its impact for their year-long partnership. While the program has become more strategic and organized, one principle that remains unchanged is that the experience is flexible and dependent on the teacher’s needs. The volunteer is there to help enhance the work and culture the teacher has built with their students and become part of their classroom community.
Another shift to the CRT program occurred shortly after WITS merged with Boundless Readers in 2015, adding a whole network of teachers to the WITS family through the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award program. Educators in the program receive free professional development and a free book grant for their classroom libraries, and now also benefit from having the potential opportunity to partner with a Classroom Reading Tutor. By partnering volunteers with RLTA teachers, WITS can support both volunteers and teachers more fully. This change also ensures that volunteers vetted and approved into the program will be paired with teachers whose visions for their classrooms are grounded in researched, studied practices. With RLTA teachers leading the way, volunteers will know their partnerships will have clear goals for students and their needs, consistent classroom routines, and experience discussing and sharing their ideas clearly for volunteer participation.
In the last few years especially, WITS has continued to improve our flagship program. When vetting volunteers, WITS asks volunteers about availability, their background with working with young people, and their ability to travel to different parts of the city. By gathering this important information, volunteers are being placed strategically with teachers based on best fit, from a variety of schools that stretch across Chicago. This means that the reach of the program is impacting more students from different neighborhoods, an important step to ensure that geographic location does not prevent educators who need support from being paired with a volunteer. WITS also desires to enhance our ability to support CRT pairs in their efforts throughout the school year. For the first time, WITS is hosting a session with Classroom Reading Tutors and partner teachers to discuss best practices for utilizing volunteers in the classroom and how to support literacy efforts in different tutoring contexts such as one on one support, small group work, and more.
While WITS strives to continuously progress in order to serve Chicago Public Schools teachers and students, none of the widespread impact would be possible without the humble beginnings of WITS’ oldest program model.