Literacy Programs Help Students Succeed: CEO Tena Latona Speaks at 2023 Blackboard Affair Gala

Jackson MayEvents, Student & Mentor Spotlight

November 11th marked this year’s annual WITS Blackboard Affair Gala, hosted at The Geraghty. The goal of this event is to raise funding for and promote how literacy programs help students succeed. WITS CEO Tena Letona started off the annual event by introducing special guest speaker Jessica Acevedo. You can find Jessica’s speech here.

Literacy Programs Help Students Succeed
Tena Letona and Jessica Acevedo embrace at WITS Blackboard Affair Gala.

Tena’s Speech

“I’m sure you’re looking around and thinking we were living our best Bee-Gee’s life planning this event for you.  Not totally wrong, I do sing staying alive to myself fairly regularly.  Monday mornings, Saturday nights. 

The Mirror Ball theme though was inspired by the most important part of the WITS mission, empowering Chicago elementary students to discover themselves through reading, and the literacy concept of windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors.  It states:

  • Books are windows into the realities of others.  
  • They are mirrors that reflect the life of the reader.  
  • And, books can be sliding glass doors that allow you to walk into another world and present opportunities for the reader. 

The other tenet of the WITS mission is to develop the foundational literacy skills of Chicago elementary students. We do this by creating community through literacy-based mentorship, enabling teachers to build diverse classroom libraries, and promoting book ownership at home.   

These pillars of our mission drive results. As Jennifer mentioned earlier, only 26% of CPS fourth graders met literacy benchmarks in 2023. And in WITS, our programming changes that. In 2023, 64% of students affected by WITS programming met or exceeded the national average in yearly reading level growth. These results directly address that performance gap and positively influence the future learning and literacy development of hundreds of CPS students. 

But the most important thing we do at WITS is provide a consistent opportunity for students to collect positive experiences with reading alongside caring adults. These types of opportunities are unique to WITS.  Most students at this age are engaging in directive conversation with adults in family and school.  But at WITS, our students find stories that they can relate to and talk about topics that are important to them with someone that is giving them undivided attention for an hour. An hour! When was the last time any of us had someone’s undivided attention for an hour?!? 

This is how the concept of windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors is embedded in WITS. You make the concept a reality.  

When I was little, the first book that was a mirror for me was in 1988, it was “Matilda” by Roald Dahl.   

I’m sure some of you in this room who know me well are thinking of course! Tena relates to Matilda! A precocious, magically mischievous child who thinks she knows better than the adults in her life.  That doesn’t sound like an 8-year-old Tena at all! 

Luckily, I grew out of that phase. 

Then I was 12, and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” opened a window to a whole new world for me. It was the first time that I thought, I can be someplace else that is not Macomb County, MI. No one in my family had ever left. But I thought, I can live in Spain. I ended up moving to Madrid in 2008 and reread many of his books, retracing footsteps he had written about. 

And then there are sliding glass doors, I could go on for days about all the books that have been opened up new worlds to me. 

Very recently I finished Demon Copperhead, the 2023 Pulitzer Prize winner by Barbara Kingslover. This book was a window, a mirror, and a sliding glass door for me. I felt like I could have written some of the pages, or that I was watching someone watch my life through a window. And the way my gut felt the entire time while reading this book tested me.   

These experiences with literature matter. They reflect our lives, they show us new worlds, and they help us develop empathy for stories that are not ours. 

For 33 years, WITS has opened the world to 65,000 students by allowing them the space to experience these things alongside a caring adult who supports their personhood and discovery.  Many of you in this room are WITS mentors and know exactly what it looks like and how it feels when something just suddenly clicks for your student.  It’s kinda the best. 

Joining me on stage right now is De Diego WITS Kindergarten mentor, Jessica Acevedo. When Jessica walked through the doors of that school in September 2022, it wasn’t the first time she had done so.  There were stories inside that building that put her on this stage beside me tonight.  I’m going to stop talking as Jessica’s windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors are way more interesting than mine. Please help me welcome to the stage, Jessica Acevedo.”

Will you help us make stories like Jessica’s possible?

Low literacy rates persist in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and across the nation. Literacy programs help students succeed with the help of your donations, and your support is urgently needed. According to a September 2023 Chalkbeat analysis of CPS test scores, only 26% of students met or exceeded reading standards, down slightly from 2019. The Annie E. Casey Foundation states: “By fourth grade, children are expected to use reading to learn other subjects… kids who reach fourth grade without being able to read proficiently are more likely to struggle academically and eventually drop out of school. Low reading proficiency also can reduce earning potential and chances for career success as adults.”

Literacy programs help students succeed. We need your help to instill a love of reading and learning in Chicago’s young learners by creating more experiences like Jessica’s. We cannot do so without your support. Please donate today.