High-Quality Programs Help Bring Greater Equity to the Summer Season

The season of inequality—and the achievement gaps that result—won't be eliminated by summer programs alone. But, academically rigorous and enriching full-day programs that span most of the summer break would make an enormous difference. Low-income children clearly need more opportunities to practice reading, take music and art lessons, visit museums and historical sites, and play sports during the summer.

Unfortunately, summer programs to meet these needs do not exist across the country. Ideally, summer programs should have high-quality academic and enrichment components, be free (or have fees on a sliding scale according to family income), offer transportation, cover the full day so that parents can work full time, and last throughout most of the summer. The ideal program probably doesn't exist, but BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) comes pretty close—read on.


By Tiffany Cooper

BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) was founded in 1992 by a group of Black and Latino students at Harvard Law School in response to appeals from parents in surrounding low-income communities. Although it began as an afterschool program, the founders soon saw a need for year-round academic enrichment. The BELL Accelerated Learning Summer Program (BELL Summer) was started in 1996, and both the afterschool and summer programs were expanded to serve nearly 12,000 children throughout Boston, New York City, and the Washington, DC, area.

BELL Summer is an ambitious and rigorous program for children in grades K–6 who are living in low-income, urban communities and performing below grade level. It is designed to mitigate summer learning loss. All of BELL's scholars, as the children are called, are given the individualized instruction they need in reading and math to experience academic success and realize that they can become smart by working hard.

Typically, BELL programs are for children who are performing between six months and two years below grade level. On average, participants have an annual household income of $16,047 (based on a family of three). More than 87 percent of BELL scholars qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. BELL works with elementary schools in low-income neighborhoods to find disadvantaged students who will benefit from its intensive program. Students are recommended by teachers, principals, and parents for academic and/or social support, or are invited to re-enroll because of previous participation. If there are too many applicants, BELL gives priority admission to the most disadvantaged children. The only children that BELL cannot serve are those with extremely severe disabilities. The program is free for low-income families, but it actually costs about $1,000 per student. Costs are covered mainly through grants, donations, and partnerships with corporations.

BELL Summer operates eight hours per day (8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.), five days per week for six weeks. Monday through Thursday mornings are reserved for academics, with classes of no more than 15 scholars per certified teacher. Teachers are purposeful and explicit in instructing scholars according to their needs, using school-year teachers' assessments, diagnostic tests, and weekly curriculum-based assessments. During the afternoons, scholars participate in structured enrichment activities led by specialty instructors. Fridays are devoted to fun, enriching activities that serve to attract and retain students and provide opportunities for social development. Teachers' assistants (trained college and graduate students) support both the academic and enrichment activities and remain with the same group of scholars throughout the program. This continuity allows BELL to maintain a staff-to-student ratio of 1:8. Two healthy meals are served each day, transportation to and from the program site is offered in regions where it is needed, and aftercare is provided (when necessary) until 6:00 p.m. for families that need additional time for pickup. In addition, BELL Summer teachers and teachers' assistants participate in four full days of training in which they work together as a team while they learn the program's curriculum and philosophy.

BELL provides a series of opportunities for parental involvement throughout the summer, beginning with a mandatory parent orientation that emphasizes the value of summer programming and offers ways to support learning at home. During the program, parents receive an introductory phone call from their child's teacher, two progress reports, and a formal opportunity to conference with teachers and program administrators. BELL parents are encouraged to read nightly with their children and review and sign Reading Logs. Parents also volunteer to chaperone field trips, facilitate special events, and be lunch monitors.

Stanford Diagnostic Reading and Math tests are administered to scholars during the first and last week of the program to measure scholars' academic gains. In 2004, BELL's internal evaluation found that scholars made statistically and educationally significant gains in reading and math. In terms of grade-level equivalents, on average, scholars began the program 1.2 years behind in reading and eight months behind in math. In just six weeks, they gained five months' worth of reading skills and seven months' worth of math skills.

An independent evaluation of the 2004 and 2005 summer programs is being conducted by the Urban Institute. This study is the first to use an experimental design to evaluate a multi-site summer program. In addition to assessing academic achievement during the program, it will also measure student achievement in the spring of the following year to determine if there are benefits that emerge during the school year, as well as attempt to follow children to adulthood to assess the lasting impact on children's life opportunities. Initial results will be released early in 2006.

Tiffany Cooper is director of education and evaluation for BELL. To learn more about BELL, visit www.bellboston.org.

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