Twenty-three years ago, Sharon Ponder Ballard walked into what she expected to be an ordinary staff meeting. Instead, she encountered Joanne Alter and Marion Stone, who came to Byrd Academy in the former Cabrini Green neighborhood to introduce the literacy non-profit they founded together, Working in the Schools (WITS).
“Once the ladies started to speak…you knew how passionate they were about literacy,” Sharon recalls. Following the presentation, Joanne visited Sharon’s fifth grade classroom, where she read aloud to the class. Joanne and Marion started connecting with other teachers at Byrd Academy, and recruited friends and colleagues to join their efforts. Something that started so small has now blossomed to over 1,500 volunteers and 300 educators impacting over 5,000 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students every year.
“WITS is more than an organization. I think it is a lifestyle,” Ponder explains. “I think it is a belief system. The volunteers are an extension of the WITS mission. They are extension of the heart of WITS, because it is about people. WITS does a phenomenal job of recruiting volunteers, because they are so passionate!”
As the original WITS partner school, Byrd Academy hosted many meetings with future WITS volunteers and stakeholders. On one such occasion, a group of donors visited Ponder’s classroom to experience first-hand the benefits of WITS programs. Ponder remembers one of the donors, Mr. Reynolds, especially well. “What Mr. Reynold’s did was he asked my students, ‘Who wants to hear a read aloud?’ And all the kids of course raised their hands. He asked the students to go to the classroom library and select a book. So they selected a book on Dr. [Martin Luther] King. Mr. Reynolds read this book to my class, and my class was mesmerized. One, because his British accent was phenomenal, and I was thinking that I could never do a read aloud again after Mr. Reynolds leaves my class. But the kids were so engaged and so enthralled by his voice, his dictation, his tone, and his intonation. After he finished, he said to the fifth grade class, ‘Do you have any questions?’ And students raised their hands and I will never forget. One student asked, ‘Well how does it feel for you being a white man reading about a great black man?’ And the place was silent, because they were waiting on Mr. Reynolds to respond. Mr. Reynolds said, ‘You know what… I feel empowered, I feel great, and you should feel empowered.’ And the kids started clapping.” This resonated with everyone in the room and was a special moment for the newly-formed WITS community.
Later that evening, Ponder was invited as a guest to attend one of the first WITS fundraisers, held at the Fairmont Chicago. “That night was so awesome for me because I got to see the bigger picture of WITS,” Sharon recalls. “At my school, I saw the need for where we need to push and promote literacy. I’m so glad that WITS saw the value of starting a literacy program for elementary students. WITS put it on everyone’s radar that reading at a young age is very instrumental and critical.”
Over the years, Ponder has remained deeply connected to the organization, serving as one of WITS’ first community champions. Not only did she advocate for her students, but she also empowered them to share their experiences in WITS mentorship programs. Ponder and some of her Byrd Academy students were invited to a fundraising wine dinner at Marion Stone’s home featuring wines from Grace Family Vineyards and food from Chef Charlie Trotter. At the event, students recited poetry, talked about the value of WITS, and how much they loved their mentors. “[That event] was so awesome, because the students felt valued and important,” Ponder remembers. “Sometimes the donors are a little bit distant from the actual students. They don’t get to see the benefit of where their money is going, so for them to get up and mingle… sit next to and befriend my students… I thought wow – what a blessing.”
Not only has WITS benefited her students, but Ponder deepened her connection to WITS as a Rochelle Lee Teacher Awardee (RLTA). For Ponder, one of the most meaningful benefits of RLTA is the book grant to help build their classroom libraries. “This is such a huge help for us teachers,” she shares, “because everyone knows that we come out of pocket for so much and we get very little credit. So, we have to give credit to people like WITS and Rochelle Lee that understand this about teachers in the classroom.”
The cornerstone of the RLTA program is the Summer Institute. Awardees receive access to over 200 hours of teacher-led professional development and are given the opportunity to tailor their experience to gain the resources and techniques that are most applicable to the needs of their classrooms and students. Ponder says the workshops are invaluable to her as a teacher. When she was given the menu of workshops to choose from she was awed by the variety of options. Even though she has been teaching for many years, she still feels the need to grow as an educator. “If you want your students to grow, we have to grow as well.”
Through the Summer Institute she was able to gain tools and strategies to help her students. One area of growth she was interested in, was how to incorporate Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in her classroom. Instead of investing her time in the problem, she wanted to be a part of the solution. “I teach at Englewood STEM High School, and unfortunately many of our students have dealt with some type of trauma. We have to be able to immerse SEL into our instruction, and I think what better way to do it than through literacy.”
Throughout her experiences, Ponder remains grateful to the WITS mentors who supported her classroom many years ago at Byrd Academy. “These volunteers were in the trenches with me, and I was able to build personal relationships [with them]. WITS is more than an organization because the people that represent WITS come with compassion and are transparent about literacy.”
“If I could talk to Joanne and Marion today,” Ponder reflects, “I would say that they would be really proud of where WITS has gone and where it has grown. It is a testament to their vision and the staff that have continued to carry that vision forward.”
There are many people that she has met through WITS that have impacted her life. “I have to thank people that have helped me become an awesome teacher. Darden and Robby Carr, Arlene Koziol, Liz Bookey, Phil and Carole Hildebrandt, Jamie and Linda Garard, Dick and Ann Grace, Ginny and Roger Carlson, Charlie Trotter, Norman and Judy Glassberg and their daughter Jessica, and of course the Alter and Stone families.”