What Our Students Need Is Us

Tena LatonaIn the Media, Inside WITS, Mission & Outcomes

Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the third largest school district in the country, is just about one month into the 2021 – 2022 school year. Students have returned to classrooms after eighteen months of nearly complete remote learning.

What’s next? Unfinished learning vs. Learning loss

District-wide educators are designing a school year to address the unfinished learning students have experienced since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. This strategy focuses on students’ strengths and acknowledges that students did benefit from multi-faceted learning while in virtual and hybrid models.  Even with the efforts to mitigate the interruption to education caused by COVID-19, there is much left to do to address the gaps in learning as young students enter classrooms for the first time ever, and older students return to vaguely familiar routines.

Data nationally does show that students are entering the school year lagging where they would be following a year of normal instruction.  This trend is steepest for economically disadvantaged students. According to CPS, 76.6% of students are economically disadvantaged. Reports show that students’ gains in reading slowed over the pandemic; students lagged behind an average of three to four months compared to 2019 (especially young learners).

One of the WITS core values is consistency.  Research shows that consistent mentoring and engagement with caring adults is an effective tool to meet students where they are and bring them up the learning curve, especially for young learners.  WITS volunteer programs serve elementary-aged students up to middle school with the bulk of our students being in pre-K to fourth grade.  This model makes WITS an important tool to address unfinished learning for the thousands of elementary students we affect.

CARES Act Investment

CPS serves 355,000 students in one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse districts in the country. CPS will invest $525 million in myriad services and programs through the 2022-2023 school year. Specifically, CPS will invest over $27 million in fiscal year 2022. This will ensure all students are proficient readers by the end of second grade.

These resources are targeted and intentional.  Forty-seven of the highest-need schools will be provided culturally and linguistically relevant classroom libraries and books to send home. Fifty-one percent of CPS students have a home language other than English.  WITS has been a leader in distributing and providing diverse literature for thirty years. This investment complements WITS’s value of empowerment. By giving students and teachers books that validate and mirror their community’s lived experiences, WITS empowers them as young learners to explore who they are. This is in keeping with the teaching concept of “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors“. 

Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Upholding the WITS value of community is necessary to ensure CPS students feel supported and cared for. As students return, they will navigate shared spaces with their peers and adults outside of their homes.  Educators have consistently identified the need for SEL as very important to addressing unfinished learning. Earlier this month, Illinois passed a new law that will allow students across the state to take five mental health days each school year. CPS will invest $106 million in additional counselors, tutors, transition support, support for diverse learners, and resources for family re-engagement.

Throughout virtual learning, WITS provided community to hundreds of elementary students. Educators regularly told WITS that being able to engage with caring adults and providing space for students to share thoughts and feelings was vital for morale and engagement.

WITS will begin programming virtually for the 2021-2022 school year. Learning in person is most valuable for students’ emotional and educational growth. WITS continues to work closely with CPS to monitor when it will be safe to return to in-person programming. 

In the end, at the heart of WITS programming is being together to share the joy of reading and relationships.