Learning Time

In a warm classroom at the Kenny School in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, eight BELL “scholars” discussed Langston Hughes’s poem “A Dream Deferred.” “Poems can be used as metaphors for the human experience,” explained Shevonne Commock, a BELL instructor. The class discussed civil liberties as defined in the first five constitutional amendments and the meaning of metaphors. Ms. Commock then asked them to “imagine what impediments would stand in your way if you’d been born during the civil rights era.”

Berline, a student who has participated in BELL programs for six years, raised her hand. “It’s an awesome poem,” she said. “It’s an inspiration.” Berline’s response to the multi-layered literacy lesson, and her understanding that Hughes is urging equality and opportunity for everyone, reflects BELL’s goals, too.

Created in 1992 by students and educators at Harvard, BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) began as a small community-based initiative. The plan was to expand learning time in Boston’s public schools, giving economically disadvantaged students a greater chance to compete and succeed with peers who had more access to after-school enrichment programs. Instead of heading home or to a playground at the end of the school day, BELL offered a far better option: stay at school longer and become a scholar.

Starting with 20 Boston children in its first year, BELL has now reached over 100,000 K–12 students in 21 cities, 12 states, and the District of Columbia, providing more than 20 million hours of instructional time, enrichment activities, field trips, and community service. BELL initially provided programming only during the school year, but now runs critically important multi-week summer sessions.

The Walmart Foundation recognized that BELL could deliver comprehensive, proven curricula to increase students’ outcomes, especially for literacy skills. With funding targeted at middle school summer programs, the Walmart Foundation helped BELL partner with school districts in Boston, Salem, and Springfield, MA; Baltimore, MD; Detroit, MI; New York City; San Jose and San Rafael, CA; Charlotte and Winston-Salem, NC; Hartford, CT; Chicago, IL; Orlando, FL; Newark, NJ; and Spartanburg, SC.

Achieving the
Greatest Gains

A two‐year independent evaluation conducted by the Urban Institute found statistically significant evidence indicating that BELL’s summer program improves the reading skills of low-performing children. Additional data demonstrated up to four months of gains in math and two months of gains in literacy skills for BELL summer scholars in just five or six weeks, with scholars who started the summer at below grade level achieving the greatest gains.

In 2014, scholars in BELL's summer learning programs gained academic skills, according to formative assessments built for measuring progress against Common Core State Standards. While all scholars, on average, gained reading and math skills, the return on investment was greatest for scholars ending the school year furthest behind grade level.

Results from STAR Reading and Math assessments administered in BELL's summer programs in 2014.

* "Underperforming scholars" score in the lowest quartile on STAR assessments: Urgent Intervention (Percentiles 1–10) or Intervention (11–25).

Both Sides of a Summer Day

BELL was an early proponent of essential summer programming for academically at-risk children, and the population it serves responded enthusiastically. When extended-year learning became an integral part of BELL, participant numbers increased steadily, with demand consistently high. In 2010, there were fewer than 4,000 BELL summer scholars. By 2013, that number had more than doubled to 8,000. In 2013, BELL was offering programming at 63 schools and community sites across the country. At every location, scholars experienced engaging, enriching, healthy, and fun summer activities that helped keep their academics on par with peers. And while participating in summer school isn’t always a first choice for children, BELL wins them over.

“Both sides” of a summer day at BELL are rich with scholarship and deep experiences of the world—in and outside the urban classroom.

Morning always begins with a nutritious breakfast from the USDA Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which on a typical day is followed by community time, where team-building games increase social skills and strong relationships. Then, literacy and math—with curricula aligned to the Common Core State Standards and customized by Pearson—are taught by certified teachers and teaching assistants. Many of the instructors are BELL veterans and public school teachers in the districts where the programs are held. Reading materials are diverse in style and culture. A healthy lunch (also from SFSP) and physical activity mark the middle of the day. Summer afternoons at BELL include robotics, tennis, digital music production, financial literacy, creative writing, visual arts, and drama. Every year, BELL chooses a theme reflecting core values of the program, and Friday “Mentor Day” activities are organized around that theme. In 2012 the theme was “Be Ambitious,” and scholars from Springfield, MA, visited Amherst College, Sturbridge Village, the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, to name a few destinations. Guest speakers included the chief of staff from Springfield City Hall, youth motivational speakers, college professors and recruiters, financial advisors, and musicians.

Watch this video for a taste of the summer experience.

Achieving a Dream

BELL is aware that scholars need the support of their parents and caregivers. “Parent engagement has been one of our greatest successes,” said Collette Williams. “Parents are busy, but they come and meet teachers and receive progress reports, and choose topics for group meetings. We get a good turn-out,” she added, “because parents see that teachers are making a connection with their kids.”

The results are evident in parent endorsements. BELL gave my daughter an advantage going into high school.…She got extra help in math—her weakest subject—and she truly excelled,” said a Springfield, MA, mother.

Students are treated as scholars, and as a result, they reach expectations and become scholars.

BELL believes in equitable education for all children, and with the support of the Walmart Foundation, improved academic opportunities for thousands of students are no longer dreams deferred. Instead, bright academic futures are becoming dreams achieved by BELL scholars across the country.

Back in Shevonne Commack’s class, the scholars had written their own “Dream Achieved” poems, imagining what happens to a dream when it overcomes obstacles and reaches its full potential.