Newsmakers Making A Difference: Brenda Langstraat, WITS

Lisa Fielding
June 21, 2018 - 7:43 am

WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Inside a classroom at John B. Drake Elementary in Bronzeville, students are learning to read and to love books.

"Name some of your favorite books that you were introduced to through the WITS program," asked Brenda Langstraat, CEO Working In The Schools, or WITS. 

Langstraat sits at a desk with six other students and a reading volunteer.

WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

For 26 years, WITS has been a presence within Chicago Public Schools. It's one on one reading and mentoring for students who need it the most.

"The programs range from twice a week, two-hour periods of time, to once a week, one-hour and we have summer programs as well," Langstraat said.

Volunteers come into the schools for Pre-K through 3rd grade programs. The After School programs are 4th through 6th graders who board a bus and go downtown to work with corporate and university mentors.

"They are getting their mentorship there and experiencing downtown," she said.

"How do I get students exposed to opportunities and experiences they wouldn't necessarily have? Through WITS, our kindergartens are exposed to reading, to socialization to different people with backgrounds they wouldn't have known," said Sydney Golliday, Principal, John B Drake Elementary School.

WITS partners with principals and teachers along with more than 1,500 volunteers to better prepare students for literacy and life.

"It's the largest volunteer core of mentors in the city," Langstraat said.

Students are chosen based on need, and partner with principals and teachers to determine who can best benefit.

"Educators try to identify students who can really benefit from the program. Teachers apply into the program. We want to make sure the students have ownership, they choose the books they are reading," she said.

WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

Golliday said WITS has been at Drake for 17 years and the numbers speak for themselves.

"Last year, 83 percent of our WITS students out performed our third grade students on tests. So what are they getting that the other students need? That impact alone challenged us to channel our energies and resources in a different way," Golliday said.

Eigth grader Armani Ray has been in the WITS program for five years.

"They're there to push us a step further from where we already are," she said.

Ray said the program has helped her with her confidence as she enters high school in the fall.

"At first I was scared, but I wanted higher test scores. When I started, I was in third grade. Now, I'm one of the highest scorers in the classroom," Ray said.

WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

Langstraat said WITS has made a huge difference for thousands of students. Their test scores are higher and their reading levels outpace their classmates and most importantly, she said, literacy promotes lifelong learners.

"A critical benchmark in literacy is about students learning to read and then making that transition to reading to learn. In our increasing digital world, to be literate at a high level is so important," she said. "When they start earlier, WITS becomes the fabric of their education."

"We love this program. It's amazing. I appreciate the program for changing the trajectory of our students lives." Golliday said.

WITS is privately funded, employs 17 people and is in 80 CPS schools.  It relies on hundreds of volunteers and partners with 67 different corporations and universities.

"Engaging students to want to read, to read a loud to them. The skills being taught once that engagement piece is there. Literacy is interdisciplinary. To be able to comprehend and to engage in all of STEM and the arts, you must be literate at a level to understand these other disciplines," Langstraat said.

"This experience has been amazing," Ray said.

For more information about the Working In The Schools program, log onto WITSChicago.org

As WBBM celebrates its 50th anniversary as Newsradio, this year we’ll be honoring 50 Newsmakers making a difference in the community.  Listen for reports each Tuesday.

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