By Ian Jackson
Joanne Alter and Marion Stone wanted to fulfill a philanthropic duty by assisting students in the city. In order to do this, they decided to create Working in the Schools, a program designed to help students become better readers.
Alter and Stone were able to support a teacher and her students in the Cabrini Green neighborhood by reading to students at a local school each week. After 25 years, WITS has shared over two million stories with over 50,000 students.
WITS is now serving students in 69 schools with the help of 1,800 mentors.
Simultaneously, just a few blocks north at Oscar Mayer Elementary, librarian Rochelle Lee was inspiring generations of students and parents through her love of reading. In honor of her impact, the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award (RLTA) was created to provide teachers with the training and resources needed to inspire a love of reading in students.
In turn, RLTA teachers emerged as literacy leaders in their schools.
“The goal of WITS is to build communities and to empower readers. WITS is dedicated by following this mission through supporting teachers and providing them with professional development through the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award program. We also provide K-6th grade students with one-on-one student-volunteer mentoring,” said program coordinator Kevin Hujar.
WITS is an imperative organization to have because reading is a fundamental tool that people use their whole lives. Supporting students with reading will help them become more confident in their literacy skills, as well as prepare them for the future.
“Having a program at Roosevelt is very special to WITS. Kevin and I are actually both Roosevelt alums. I love that Chicago Public School students, whom I’ve worked with for many years, get the opportunity to read with college mentors and hopefully be inspired to walk the halls of Roosevelt one day,” said Chief Program Officer Kristen Strobbe.
In 2015, these programs merged under the WITS umbrella to create a holistic approach to literacy support in classrooms and schools. WITS stands on the shoulders of those visionaries and their belief that empowering students as readers will build communities of lifelong learners.
“One of my favorite parts about my job is curating our book collection and helping students find books that they can connect with. I think people have this idea that kids especially boys don’t like to read. That’s just not true. They just need the right book at the right time,” said Program Director Ellen Werner.