For the last 15 years, Working in the Schools (WITS) has been recruiting volunteers to read with CPS students. Now, volunteers work with students in 28 schools. The Power Lunch program sends workers from Loop offices to nearby schools for lunchtime reading sessions with 2nd- and 3rd-graders. Older students are invited into the workplace for a mentoring program, and preschoolers and kindergartners cuddle up with volunteers who read to them. Writer Jazmenda McNabb sat down with Executive Director Jenné Myers to talk about the program.
How did WITS start?
We started 15 years ago with a basic need recognized by our two wonderful founders, Joanne Alter and Marion Stone, who walked over to Cabrini-Green [a public housing development on the North Side] and into Byrd School saying, “How can we help?” Now we serve 2,500 students with 1,300 volunteers.
What is your goal?
If you can get a child who, in their free time, will pick up a book instead of an iPod or PlayStation, we have come a long way. It’s teaching the child the habits of reading, which hopefully down the road will impact test scores.
How do you know whether it’s working?
We use an extensive evaluation matrix, [including] a look at standardized test scores. I am trying to persuade my board to use more quantifiable measures: Is the child more apt to read? Are they excited to read? Are they reading at home? The teachers say yes.
How do you identify students and schools?
We look at schools that have 80 percent and above minority and low-income students. We try to focus on 3rd grade, because they have to take the ISAT. We don’t want them to be intimidated by the test, so we try to instill the joy and love of reading.
How does Workplace Mentoring work?
It’s an after-school tutoring and mentoring program. Once a week, 4th- and 5th- graders get on a bus and come downtown to meet volunteers. There is a group that goes to the Chicago Board Options Exchange. Those kids all want to be traders. They put on the jackets, they follow stocks—it’s so cool for them. Before, that was never in their realm of possibilities.
How do you screen and train volunteers?
The Erikson Institute and the Chicago Public Library train volunteers. We are required to screen volunteers only once, but for the safety of our children, we pay the extra money to screen our volunteers every year. They are screened by CPS through the Illinois State Police.
Your volunteers keep returning. Why?
Overall, we have an 80 percent retention rate, which means if you’ve done it before, you are coming back. I have had so many volunteers say, “It’s the highlight of my week.” And we make giving back easy. For our Power Lunch program, the volunteers board a big yellow school bus and travel to their schools, so we provide the transportation. Our pitch is about convenience.
Do volunteers ever form deeper relationships with a school or kid?
Those corporate people start to see [a need] and say, “How can we help out here?” Law firm McDermott Will & Emery, which is partnered with Brown School, has installed a new scoreboard and helps with grounds cleanup and landscaping projects. They give students books and gift certificates for clothing. This year, McDermott launched Lawyers in the Classroom, which mentors 8th-graders. LaSalle Bank, UBS, Pepper Construction have all done things at their schools.
Where do you want WITS to be in the next five years?
I would like to see a total presence in the 28 schools. Children would have WITS from early childhood, to Power Lunch, then Workplace Mentoring. They go to the workplace and get the opportunity to dream big and say, “There is a career for me outside of what I see in my neighborhood.”