Going Virtual: Adapting the WITS Early Childhood Summer Program

Elizabeth KristoffPartnerships, Programs

At WITS Early Childhood Summer Program (ECSP), students entering kindergarten and first grade enjoy familiar fairy tales while practicing foundational literacy skills, such as identifying letters and elements of a story. When adapting the ECSP curriculum for a virtual platform, Program Specialist Kevin Hujar had two key things in mind: joy and accessibility.  

student with early childhood summer program activity packet
ECSP student who made a fantastic wolf mask, an activity included in the ECSP packet.

“I wanted to [create] a curriculum that embraced playfulness, encouraged engagement, and featured valuable literacy skills in a clear and intentional approach,” Kevin explains.  

The process began shortly after the launch of Empowering Readers at Home, an online resource page designed to engage the WITS community through video read-alouds, literacy-based activities, and a message portal to keep students and mentors connected. Like Empowering Readers, Virtual ECSP would be a lively, fun space for students and families to enjoy at their own speed – while also providing enough structure to support developing skills.  

Previously, ECSP took place in person four days a week for five weeks. To pare down the original curriculum for easy viewing, Kevin, along with Curriculum Manager Laurie Brooks, identified the three main components of a single day at ECSP:  

•Morning Message: A welcome activity to introduce a reading skill 

•Read-aloud of traditional and fractured fairy tales 

•Zoophonics: Students practice letter sounds using animal names and physical gestures 

Instead of offering content every day, Virtual ECSP posts a single video for each activity, featuring different WITS Program Staff members, on Mondays and Wednesdays from July 13th to August 14th. As in years past, each week focuses on a different fairy tale and both the Morning Message and Read-Aloud segments reinforce such skills as visualization, making predictions, and identifying punctuation.  

The ECSP Activity Packet, previously provided in hard copy at ECSP sites, was not only made digital – but redesigned with vibrant graphics and new activities to correspond with the week’s themes and skills.  

In many ways, the original ECSP curriculum remains intact. What’s different is how we deliver it.  

Designed With Accessibility In Mind 

“I constantly thought about program accessibility,” Kevin reflects. “Three factors that impacted the evolution of this program were access to technology, language barriers, and supporting [diverse] learners.”  

According to the Kids First Chicago report, “Digital Equity in Education in the Coronavirus Era,” one in five Chicago students under the age of eighteen lack access to the internet. WITS acknowledged the connectivity gap among our schools by providing a free sign-up for educators, families, and community members to receive printed ECSP Activity Packets. Through an exciting partnership with the Chicago Public Library Foundation, WITS will also provide copies of ECSP Activity packets to 81 Chicago Public Library branches across the city. By the end of the summer, 4,500 ECSP Activity Packets will be in Chicago homes. 

And, for the first time, the ECSP Activity Packet is available in Spanish. The ECSP webpage also has a Spanish translation option, and all read-alouds are offered in Spanish, presented by longtime WITS partner teacher, Rosalba Granados. Research shows that receiving literacy opportunities in a child’s home language, such as Spanish, makes it easier for them to learn how to read in a second language, such as English.  

Supporting Diverse Learners 

In addition to designing program to engage Spanish-speaking students, WITS considered the needs of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learners. Videos feature high-energy attention-getters, call-and-response questions, music, and even costumes and props. During the daily read-aloud, viewers can see the illustrations and print, allowing them to follow along as if reading together in person.  

“Though our online content is mainly comprised of visual and auditory components, we were able to help kinesthetic learners [through] our activity packet,” explains Kevin, “The activity packet provides options for students to draw, practice writing letters, and showcase creativity through crafts.” Viewers can also let out some energy during the “Let’s Move” videos posted on Wednesdays, which provide easy-to-follow movement exercises themed after the fairy tale of the week.  

Relying On Routine 

However viewers learn best, Virtual ECSP is a space for families to explore, share, and enjoy reading on a regular basis. The virtual platform also enables WITS to engage with audiences outside our typical reach. Previously, ECSP served 100 students across seven schools each summer. Since the launch of Virtual ECSP in mid-July:  

•Materials have been downloaded over 100 times 

•The ECSP page has been viewed 11,000 times 

•Videos have been viewed 5,700 times  

Through WITS’ partnership with the Chicago Public Library, we will collaborate with neighborhood libraries to expand the promotion of WITS online material throughout the school year. 

student watching virtual early childhood summer program morning message
ECSP student watches the Morning Message.

“Virtual ESCP’s greatest strength is that it can bring happiness and light and a sense of routine to people at a time in history that is full of uncertainty,” says WITS Community Manager Annie Kennedy. “Students and, by extension, their families know that they can pull up the WITS website to find fun activities and watch a lot of cool videos by people who clearly love reading.” 

Kevin Hujar agrees, “I am proud of the consistency that this program provides. [It] follows a routine that viewers can count on.”  

As Chicago Public Schools develops its plan for reopening in the fall, WITS is paying close attention to the needs of teachers, students, and families to continue providing consistent literacy support. Though our moniker is Working in the Schools, adapting the ECSP program encouraged us to consider how WITS fits in the homes and daily lives of our students. Whatever the 2020-2021 school year brings, WITS will uphold the spirit of adaptability and creativity to play a meaningful role in the schools and homes we serve. 

WITS’ focuses on driving two measurable literacy outcomes: improving reading level growth and attitudes toward reading.


Over the past 3 years, 68% of WITS students surpassed the national average for annual reading level growth


Over the past 3 years, 65% of WITS students reported an improvement in overall attitude toward reading and reading behaviors (i.e. reading out loud, reading during a test, reading to learn, etc.)

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