Lessons in Learning: A Fresh Approach to Summer School

Young BELL scholars enjoy their summer learning program in San Mateo (Source: BELL)

Building Educated Leaders for Life, or BELL, a Tipping Point grantee since 2012, has been testing an innovative approach to summer learning in the Bay Area, and is seeing exceptional results.

Third grade reading proficiency is an important predictor of high school graduation and career success and yet every year, more than 80% of low-income children miss this important milestone.[1] In San Mateo, one of the wealthiest counties in the state, just 27% of Latino, African-American and Pacific Islander children can read proficiently by the third grade compared to 75% of their white peers.[2]

Founded in Boston in 1992, BELL aims to close the achievement gap for children in low-income communities through out-of-school summer learning programs. BELL takes a holistic approach to learning, combining rigorous academics with field trips, physical exercise, guest speakers and college readiness activities. They focus on low-income children from pre-K up to 8th grade.

A direct service organization — traditionally relying on the cultivation of independent relationships with schools, families, funders and staff across the country — BELL decided to build and test a new partnerships-based approach to its summer learning programs in the Bay Area.

When BELL launched in San Mateo, it partnered with The Big Lift and used the established network to deliver summer learning programs to local scholars. The Big Lift, a collective impact model involving more than 300 organizations, aims to improve educational outcomes for low-income children in San Mateo by providing high-quality and connected early learning experiences. A key pillar of The Big Lift’s strategy is providing enriching summer learning experiences so that low-income children don’t fall behind. Given The Big Lift’s local and collaborative approach, it was very receptive to BELL’s new partnership-based model and its focus on building local capacity.

“Our partnerships model is grounded in the idea that there are often incredible assets and leaders in local communities, but so many of them don’t have the right program to deliver to young scholars to boost their academic achievements and social-emotional skills,” said Partheev Shah, Vice President, Strategy and Partnerships at BELL. “BELL delivers a proven, data-driven approach with a customized curriculum, rigorous assessment and professional development that would have taken years to formulate. Local partners bring existing relationships with families and scholars, and enrichment opportunities.”

This move into licensed partnerships with entities like school districts is uncommon in the out-of-school learning space. In this sense, BELL’s innovation lies in its generosity — the intellectual property that it has spent the past 25 years building is now shared with the seven school districts participating in The Big Lift.

When The Big Lift partnership kicked off in the summer of 2016, BELL provided summer learning programs to more than 750 scholars. Across the 10 sub-domains of literacy — including phonics, vocabulary, and paragraph comprehension — the rising kindergarten scholars achieved gains in every one. Rising first grade scholars saw one month gains in academic skills, setting them up for success in the following school year. Across the four districts, 97% of parents reported high satisfaction with the program and a majority increased engagement in their child’s education, while 90% of teachers stated that BELL training helped them develop professional skills.

“These exceptional results were a bit of a surprise to us. We were confident that the program would have a positive impact, but this was our first implementation of pre-k programs at scale,” said Kris Murray, National Director, Partner Relations at BELL. “Anecdotally, kindergarten teachers reported that they could pick out The Big Lift students on the first day of school — our scholars had already negotiated separation from parents and come to see that school was a safe, fun place to be. They knew the norms of a classroom, such as sitting ‘criss-cross applesauce’ and transitioning from one activity to another in an organized way. They were prepared to jump right in.”

This summer, BELL will serve 1,500 scholars across 7 school districts in San Mateo County, adding three new districts to the four served last year. One additional grade level has also been added to ensure momentum builds across the portfolio. BELL has grown its presence in San Francisco and will serve three sites there in partnership with the YMCA.

To learn more about BELL and their impact, visit experienceBELL.org

[1] The Campaign for Grade Level Reading

[2] California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress

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