Clark Nienow (back,) Mac Keels, and Teddy Ericson enjoy picking out books from the Free Little Library at Whittier Elementary. | Provided by Laurie Conley, Whittier Elementary Librarian.

As the world opened to in-person connections following the global COVID-19 pandemic, Whittier Elementary School’s PTO is taking every opportunity for fundraising available to bring back in-school activities for students to engage and participate in with others, an important part of school that was missing throughout the months of online learning. 

Dominique Betancourt-Schaap, co-president of the Whittier PTO,  said the pandemic has left residual challenges to navigate when trying to plan for student activities. Whittier is at 715 N. Harvey Ave.

“This year marks the first year bringing back programs such as World Language and our after-school program WISE,” Betancourt-Schaap said. “It also marks the first-year parents could come inside the school for parent teacher conferences, and in-classroom activities such as Halloween celebrations.” 

Following the reopening of schools, the PTO faced challenges when crafting its budgets as they were not certain of what activities inside the school would look like, said Betancourt-Schaap, adding that due to restrictions put in place as a response to COVID,  many adults had never been inside the school and were not aware of what the school had to offer. 

“We didn’t budget for any school enrichment activities, and enrichment means things that go outside of academics,” Betancourt-Schaap said. “We as PTO’s try to round-off students by going after the whole child. It’s not just can they write, can they read, can they do math, that is school infrastructure 101. What our mission is, is ‘how do we enrich the lives of students’?”

By bringing programs such as yoga, ceramics, karate, and others, the PTO is breaking down barriers that might exist outside of school that could limit the exposure some students have to diverse programs. 

“All of these programs are what we brought back this year so now the challenges then became that the school wanted to bring back additional programs,” Betancourt-Schaap said. “The Read-A-Thon was crafted because we did not have any budgeted funds to support the programs they were bringing back.” 

Wanting to add a layer of win-win for the community, the PTO partnered with Read for My School, creating a literacy-first focus allowing for organizers to promote a custom digital fundraiser to help not only raise funds but also improve childhood literacy by having students track their reading against created goals for a fun and engaging challenge. 

Students were then able to share their achievements, which increased literacy awareness and brought in donations for the PTO. 

“If you put something in, you should get something out,” Betancourt-Schaap said.

For their first-ever Read-A-Thon, the PTO set a goal of having students read an cumulative 175,000 minutes. 

According to Betancourt-Schaap, students read a total of 170,200 minutes, just shy of their goal. They also raised $5,255 for the PTO. Despite being south of their fundraising goal of $7,000, Betancourt-Schaap said the school had many “wins” throughout the fundraiser, including reading 621 books and having a participation of 60 percent of their student population. 

Additionally, their top three readers recorded over 3,000 minutes read. 

Another “win” for the school was the creation of a “Free Little Library” that was formed with book donations for all students to “shop” for free books to be able to take home to read.

The Hubbard Street Dance Company, a contemporary dance company in its 45th season in Chicago, was one of the enrichment programs paid through the PTO funds raised. 

“Activities like these have a high impact on children and support their growth outside of basic academics,” Betancourt-Schaap said. 

Eboné Harden, director for education and community programs at Hubbard, said the professional dance company takes the live performance experiences and translates them into a classroom setting. 

“We want youth through adults to understand that they are dancers in their own rights,” Harden said. “However, that body presents itself, whichever neurodiversity or physical diversity, we want folks to understand that movement is also their form of language.” 

Serving CPS and neighboring school districts, the dance company would partner with school administration as well as the classroom teacher to work together to plan along with their curriculum. Hubbard will be holding a six-week residency with Whittier, partnering with three classrooms and working with fourth graders, to help students create their own choreographed dance pieces.  

“Dance allows them to authentically self-express how they are interpreting their school day, their lessons, how they are feeling that day, they are able to express that through these toolboxes of movements,” Harden said. “It allows them to have that self-reflection moment but also seeing how they connect as a community because in small groups if you are trying to get to this end goal of creation choreography, everybody plays a role.” 

The total price for the Spring six-week dance residency, which included instruction time, teaching artist, a virtual field trip, and 55 minutes of instruction each day, was $2,700. 

Whitter also welcomed Opera for the Young, a performing touring company out of Madison, Wisconsin, which helped students learn and perform a student appropriate version of “Barber of Seville” in January. 

Saira Frank, managing director for Opera for the Young, said the company takes opera into elementary schools, performing for the children and with the children. Students from Whittier learned their roles ahead of time and then joined performers on stage for a school wide 45-minute performance. 

The company, which began partnering with Whittier back in 2012, helps prepare students for the performance approximately six weeks before. To prepare, music teachers work with students alongside tutorial videos and written material and student handbooks provided. 

Having to go completely virtual during COVID, Frank said they were able to pivot quickly, but are excited to be able to be in-person again with students. 

“There is no replacement for live opera singing and live performance,” Frank said, calling the arts the “perfect vehicle for learning.” “There is nothing that compares to a live operatic voice in person and nothing that can impress that quality of sound in front of students the same way and being able to see live costumes and sets and feel the performance live, it is such an essential part of theater.” 

Doing some fundraising of their own, Opera for the Young charges schools a $800 fee and uses raised funds to cover the additional costs, which usually runs close to $2,000 per performance. 

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