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An adult woman helps a young girl with reading in a classroom.

Building Literacy and Confidence in Chicago Schools

As students in Chicago head back to school, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois (BCBSIL) employees are helping kids catch up on their reading skills.

The sooner the outreach, the better. Studies show children reading below grade level by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than those  reading at grade level. And 87% of reading-proficient first graders go on to read at their level in fourth grade and higher.

To help young kids in Chicago stay on track, BCBSIL has partnered with Chicago Public Schools and nonprofit Innovations for Learning since the 2013-14 school year. Volunteer mentors are matched with students who need additional support via the online literacy platform TutorMate to practice reading techniques.

Since the partnership started, 102 BCBSIL volunteers have spent nearly 680 hours with kids in 14 classrooms. Volunteer support became particularly impactful after schools shut down or went virtual during the pandemic, says Cary Zakon, national manager at Innovations for Learning.  

Many students can use extra reading practice, he says.

“I haven’t met an elementary school teacher who can read for 30 minutes once a week with all of their kids,” he says. “Teachers give us a little bit of their time and then TutorMate and our community partners like BCBS give them countless hours of added reading support to lift up those who struggle the most.”

[Related: See more ways BCBSIL is making an impact in our communities]

Bridget Thomas, executive travel coordinator with BCBSIL, has been participating since 2018. She is one of 15 BCBSIL employees who volunteered more than 83 hours with kids enrolled at Chicago’s Drake and Park Manor elementary schools during the 2021-22 school year.

For 30 minutes each week Thomas connects online with a child in grade one or two to read books, play word games and develop reading skills. While hesitant at first, many kids open up toward the middle of the year as they gain confidence in their reading and themselves, Thomas says.

“You hear it in their voices and when they’re trying to work something out,” she says. “It’s really rewarding when you see the impact that you’re making and the improvements the child is making.”

Thomas, who grew up in the Morgan Park neighborhood, is dedicated to helping her neighborhood thrive. Other than TutorMate, she also volunteers at the Morgan Park Blue Door Neighborhood CenterSM.

“It is a great way to give back to the community, help kids learn and stay engaged,” she says. “If you can help kids early on, they will have a good chance of success knowing people are there for them.”

The partnership is among the community-based organizations and programs focusing on youth development, mentoring and tutoring that BCBSIL supports through grants, sponsorships and employee volunteerism. So far this year, 238 employees in Illinois have volunteered more than 6,700 hours teaching, tutoring, coaching and mentoring with organizations, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and local Girl Scouts groups.

“We live in a lot of the communities that we serve,” says Shelley Long, a BCBSIL community relations manager who established the partnership with Innovations for Learning. “It’s really great to see students advance and the value the program brings not only to them but the employee volunteers as well.”

Employee mentors who participated in the 2021-22 school year believe 80% of the tutoring sessions were successful, according to TutorMate survey results. Additionally, 88% of teachers most valued the extra one-on-one practice the program provides students, which is crucial for many of them.

Some students moved up at least one reading levels, according to nearly 65% of teachers surveyed.

“A good corporate citizen always has their community in mind — not just the core business model but how they can lift up their communities,” Zakon says. “I appreciate Blue Cross and Blue Shield immensely and for sticking with us all of these years.”

A Division of Health Care Service Corporation, a Mutual Legal Reserve Company, an Independent Licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association