(Special thanks to Brenda Langstraat of WITS Chicago for her time and insight)
At a time when immediacy and brevity of digital and social media drive our discourse, literacy can be easily dismissed…but the volunteers and staff of WITS Chicago work hard to promote a love of reading – and literacy – in Chicago youth. I had the opportunity to speak at length with Brenda Langstraat, CEO of WITS Chicago, to discuss their work and how they are making a positive impact on the city.
Founded 27 years ago, WITS Chicago partners with Chicago Public Schools to connect with students to foster a love of reading and learning. With an extremely large volunteer corps over 1500 literacy mentors, WITS Chicago merged with a school literacy development professional development program for teachers four years ago. As a result, WITS Chicago has a unique model that not only encourages one-on-one reading in youth but also fosters the idea of teachers as “microcosm librarians” in their classroom. Working in 90 schools, WITS Chicago has the largest imprint in the CPS system. Teachers are not only free to develop best practices but also mentor each other and transform the classroom into an ideal place to drive literate activities.
(Since WITS Chicago is privately funded, they are relatively immune to budget cuts since they do not charge for their services)
Located in the Literacenter in the West Loop, WITS Chicago runs two primary programs: a year-long program focusing on kindergarten through eighth grade (focusing on reading) and a summer program focused on pre-kindergarten youth (focused on classroom readiness). Most WITS Chicago mentors come from the corporate sector, with 70 corporations providing both financial and volunteer support for WITS Chicago’s efforts. Whether heading to school during class to work with third graders or seeing fourth through eighth graders during afterschool programs, corporate volunteers become civic-minded to the point where their employers “adopt” schools (much like Chicago Charity Challenge participants “adopt” nonprofits). Combined with the search for financial resources, WITS Chicago maintains a consistent effort to foster literacy and reading skills in Chicago Public School students.
But what makes WITS Chicago unique is its philosophy, which Ms. Langstraat summarized in a single phrase:
“Literacy leads to equity”
As Ms. Langstraat emphasized throughout our conversation, becoming literate is a community activity since books act as a kind of social/emotional capital. “Being literate,” Ms. Langstraat explained, “is not to be in isolation“. With increasing questions about libraries being relevant in the digital age, WITS Chicago promotes the idea that literacy – like digital excellence – is a human right that has increasing relevance in modern times. Literacy helps individuals process information more efficiently and allows them to understand and perceive their usefulness. Through their mission, WITS Chicago works to strengthen literacy skills in Chicago’s youth.
And WITS Chicago is not alone in that idea – their work with Chicago Public Schools (especially with CEO Janice K. Jackson) shows a strong commitment to fostering community ties and bolstering the idea that literacy is not just a social issue, but also a public safety and public health issue. (After all, literacy allows people to develop and understand empathy and a greater connection to the outside world). Like Chicago’s public libraries, schools are anchor institutions which provide a great number of opportunities to build and strengthen communities in our neighborhoods. (Ms. Langstraat cited Commissioner & Chief Brian Bannon’s innovative approach which sees the library system as a community hub, as well as CPL’s reputation as the best library system in the nation and the third best in the world). As a member of the Chicago Literacy Alliance, WITS Chicago engages in its philosophy of literacy fostering community.
WITS Chicago is more than just an organization or an institution; it is a movement of educators, volunteers, and other concerned individuals supporting communities by collaborating towards fostering and providing the skills that Chicago area students need. On November 3rd, WITS Chicago will hold its annual Blackboard Affair fundraiser from 5:30 to 11:30 pm at Revel Fulton Market to fund its efforts.
When it comes to promoting literacy, WITS Chicago is seeing huge returns on investment…and if you wish to donate your time or other resources, reach out. They’re doing good work.
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And as always, thanks for reading.