Mike Litow—Inspiring teens to live their dreams

March 2014 View more


Mike Litow, Founder and Executive Director of The Education Center

In high school Mike Litow was written off as incorrigible, a juvenile delinquent and some even might have said “unintelligent.” He struggled academically and had little faith in himself or his future.

Today, however, Mike Litow’s name is found in congratulatory letters written by several presidents, senators, mayors and celebrities. He is the subject of articles and TV interviews and is a highly sought-after speaker, writer, and winner of some of the nation’s highest awards. So what happened? What changed the trajectory of his life?

Life-Changing Experience

Someone believed in Litow. Someone stepped in, encouraged him, listened to him, and recognized his strengths. Now, after retiring from 35 years of teaching and administrating on Chicago’s South Side, Litow, and The Education Center he founded in 1979, does the same to help teens discover their strengths and build their self-esteem to help them forge a successful path through school, to a meaningful career.

Making Changes, Not Excuses

The Education Center offers a unique service and support,” Litow explains about the nonprofit he started in Oak Park. “We help kids succeed in school and life with a program that involves life coaching. They gain confidence and independence and life skills through an individualized approach that helps them realize their goals. We empower them to take responsibility for their lives. Not make excuses, but make changes.”

Building Relationships

30 years and more than 1,000 students later, The Education Center, headquartered in Naperville since 1989, boasts a 97 percent graduation rate for their students, replete with turn-around stories that underscore the creative lengths they go to, to see kid’s lives changed for the better. Part of the success of the program certainly belongs to its variety of approaches that include mentoring, tutoring, counseling, career development, life coaching and referrals for more serious issues like substance abuse. But Litow credits the heart of their success to relationships.

“That’s a critical part of our program, the relationship I and my staff have with each kid. We listen, take them seriously and want to know what’s going on in their lives,” Litow says, citing the most common parental concern as academic performance or their child not living up to their potential. “It’s not just organization and time management. There are often underlying problems of depression or anxiety—competition is very intense and causes kids extreme stress—you can treat the symptoms but never go to the root cause.”

Hard Work and Effort

Litow and his colleagues underscore the value of hard work and effort, rather than just grades. They found this is also key to rebuild a student’s sense of confidence and worth—a necessary factor in making positive change. “Before you try to learn, you have to learn to try,” Litow is often quoted as saying.

“Parents need to provide encouragement and applaud effort and say, ‘keep it up’, ‘work hard,’ and ‘we’re proud of you’ because that will lead to better results. Encourage them to do more and build on success until they feel good about themselves.”

This past September, The Education Center’s main fundraiser dinner raised money for a program that provides free or low-fee services to teens and families of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Thanks to donations and their foundation, no family is ever turned away that is committed to the process.

Considering how much Litow’s life has changed and the impact of his work with teens over the years, it is easy to understand why he doesn’t see his work as a job but as his passion. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years and to have people say ‘you made a difference.’ That validates that I went down the right path.”

For more information visit:
The Education Center

Photo by Robyn Sheldon