Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2009


Tri-captain Thomas Giblin ´10 elevates for a header in a Fall Weekend win against Colby on the Artificial Turf at Silfen Field, while Nick Maghenzani ´13 closes in on the play. Head coach Kenny Murphy´s Camels finished 8-6-1 in the program´s best record in more than a decade.

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Sam Bottum ´89 with Chicago public school students

With help from Sam Bottum ´89, Chicago students — and their teachers — learn to love learning

By Julie Wernau

Inside Chicago´s public shools, where teachers are screaming against a backdrop of poverty and even violence, it is easy for teachers to feel isolated from their peers.

“I would have thought I would die on the vine if I hadn´t met other like-minded teachers,” says Michelle Gunderson, who teaches third grade at Nettelhorst School, a fine and performing arts magnet school.

Gunderson has developed a cadre of friends and positive professional relationships by taking part in a reading group with other teachers through a program called Boundless Readers, a Chicago-based nonprofit led by chief operating officer Sam Bottum ´89. The organization provides professional development programs and resources to teachers in the city´s public schools.

Since leaving Connecticut College, Bottum has co-founded two civic engagement organizations and held leadership roles in at least five other socially minded ventures.

“In our world, there are endless needs and voids to be addressed,” Bottum says.

Bottum considers himself lucky to have had more mentors and role models at Connecticut College than he can count on his “hands and feet.” But in school systems like Chicago´s, the very teachers who are expected to be mentors can lack mentors themselves. Negativity and burnout are very real and the system is hemorrhaging teachers.

“Frankly, a big part of what we do at Boundless Readers is raise the expectations of what children are capable of and what teachers are capable of,” says Bottum, who has two sons himself: Henry, 3, and Joe, 1.

Boundless Readers works with up to 400 elementary school teachers in about 90 schools throughout the city, reaching as many as 12,000 mostly low-income students. Teachers apply to be a part of Boundless Readers and, if accepted, says Gunderson, “They work us pretty hard.”

Before they can receive an $800 grant to purchase books for the classroom, teachers must take a course called “Teachers as Readers” that encourages the same lifelong learning in teachers that they hope to instill in their students. Grant recipients then choose two classes from a professional development course catalog with titles like, “Being a Boy: Encouraging and Helping Boys to Read” and “Picturing Justice: Teaching Social Justice Through Picture Books.”

Gunderson, who has taught for 24 years in Chicago Public Schools, says one of the best parts about Boundless Readers is having the chance to choose the books specifically for the students in her classroom — to get away from the one-size-fits-all mentality that can pervade large school systems.

Gunderson says the $100 yearly classroom stipend assigned by the district to each teacher is barely enough to cover her “sticker budget,” making programs like Boundless Readers indispensable.

GREGOIRE KLEES-JOHNSON ´89 and Bottum have followed similar paths since college — both attended the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Klees-Johnson is now a board member at Boundless Readers.

“Both of us are entrepreneurs: I´m an educational entrepreneur and Sam is a social entrepreneur,” says Klees-Johnson, who with his wife, Kristine, co-founded Bubbles Academy, an early childhood education center in Chicago.

A former class president, Klees-Johnson lauds his alma mater for empowering students to “govern themselves,” which he believes directly contributes to the development of effective leaders. He says Bottum´s leadership has helped Boundless Readers become a national model that has received the support of President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

“It´s really hard to grasp the idea of a school where children often don´t have access to books,” Klees-Johnson says. “But that is a reality in far too many children´s lives here in Chicago and in other major cities across the country.”

On a recent visit to a Boundless Readers teacher´s classroom in a tough neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, Klees-Johnson found a classroom filled with books — 80 percent from Boundless Readers, the rest from the teacher´s own savings. The school couldn´t afford to pay a librarian, he says.

When he asked the students in that class to tell him about their favorite books, one child immediately pulled out a book about Benjamin Banneker, an African-American mathematician and astronomer famous for creating some of America´s very first almanacs.

“The enthusiasm of these children comes from the teacher´s enthusiasm about reading and books,” Klees-Johnson says, adding that a year ago that teacher had considered quitting because she was disillusioned by the public school system.

IN ORDER TO REACH teachers and, in turn, children, Bottum believes in nurturing the whole person — which means giving them ample opportunity to learn, grow and collaborate in various arenas.

When Bottum was at Connecticut College, he had the chance to learn and grow in many different directions. He was an activist, helping to raise money to send non-white students in South Africa to college at the height of apartheid. He was a house president, a volunteer at New London´s B.P. Learned Center, and a champion for greater student responsibility in academic leadership: He helped establish an SGA Chair of Academic Affairs.

“I think what´s great about Connecticut College is it´s about the whole person, inside and outside the classroom,” he says.

While at the Kellogg School, Bottum and three classmates co-founded a civic engagement organization called Kellogg Corps that continues to help international NGOs to this day. He also co-chaired Kellogg´s community service organization, Business With a Heart, and went on to work at General Mills, where he co-founded Community Capital Alliance, with a core mission of educating and engaging young professionals about and with nonprofits in the community.

Today, in addition to his work at Boundless Readers, he serves on the board of Thresholds, one of the nation´s most successful and respected providers of services for people with severe mental illness.

Bottum says in all his ventures his strength comes through collaborating with others. It´s the same philosophy he brings to his role at Boundless Readers.

“A big part of what we are building in schools is effective professional community and collaboration among educators,” Bottum says.

He originally began at Boundless Readers as a board member and fell in love with the organization.

“The children in the Chicago Public Schools should have the same opportunities as you and I have had,” Bottum says, “to become lifelong readers, learners and thinkers, and to be able to attend the Connecticut Colleges of the world and lead successful lives — academically, socially, economically.”

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