Q&A With BELL’s Tiffany Cooper Gueye

By Nora Fleming — August 23, 2011 7 min read
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From its origins as a campus-based after-school program run by Harvard University students in the early 1990s, Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL) has grown to an award-winning summer and after-school program that serves more than 15,000 students in cities in six states.

This summer, BELL was recognized with a $3.8 million grant from the Walmart Foundation through the sponsorship National Summer Learning Association that will enable it to serve 8,000 more middle school students during the summer within the next three years.

In both the summer and after-school programs, elementary and middle school students receive literacy and math instruction from certified teachers in small classes; tutors and assistants help them through the process. Enrichment activities like mentorships and field trips as well as project-based learning are also part of the program.

Chief Executive Officer Tiffany Cooper Gueye served in a number of roles at BELL—tutor to site manager to manager of evaluation to New York regional director to chief operating officer—prior to her current position. As CEO, Gueye has taken her own background in research to pursue more stringent accountability and evaluation measures of BELL’s program. The third-party research has shown results: BELL participants typically gain three months or more of literacy and math skills in six weeks of the summer program, and students in the after-school program outpace their national norm peers.

Here’s what Gueye had to say about BELL’s model for summer and after-school, the importance of parent involvement, and how BELL is using data to show its programs have an impact.

Q: At the Wallace conference in May, you spoke a bit about the importance of parent engagement, one of BELL’s key program elements. How have you reached out and involved the parents of program participants?
A: Because youth who have guardians that are involved in and able to advocate for their education are more likely to persist and succeed in school, a core component of the BELL model is family engagement. Prior to the start of BELL programs, guardians attend an orientation to set expectations for their child’s attendance and their involvement. During the course of programs, BELL offers teacher conferences, workshops, and take-home activities for guardians to complete with their scholars. Families are also given opportunities to participate as chaperones on field trips or community-service projects. At the end of BELL programs, all sites hold a closing ceremony, which brings together families, the school community, and community stakeholders in a celebration of our scholars and their accomplishments. While scholars demonstrate what they have learned over the course of the program, BELL also recognizes guardians for exceptional involvement.

Q: Your programs have been tied to strong evaluation and research-backed support, particularly given your own background in research. How have you measured results and the impact of your programs? What measures do you think are fundamental to out-of-school-time program success?
A: In order to ensure that scholars succeed and that programs meet their needs, BELL has developed a rigorous assessment and evaluation system to ensure that every scholar receives the support necessary to reach proficiency in academics and strengthen their self-confidence and social skills. On a pre- and post-program basis, BELL staff administer nationally normed Stanford Diagnostic Tests in reading and math during the first week of the program. An innovative Web-based assessment system, Edusoft, processes outcomes from this test and helps staff develop individualized learning plans for each scholar, highlighting areas of strength and areas in need of improvement. BELL uses these score reports and other performance data to differentiate instruction. Skills-based quizzes enable staff to realign instruction based on scholars’ progress. In the last week of the program, BELL again administers the diagnostic test to quantify gains in reading and math skills.

BELL also distributes a range of surveys to scholars, teachers and tutors, and parents. Scholar surveys focus on their self-perception, program quality, and satisfaction. Teacher and tutor surveys focus on their perception of scholars’ academic- and social-skills development, curriculum- and enrichment-programming quality, and satisfaction. Parent surveys focus on the program’s effectiveness in improving scholars’ academic performance, self-esteem, and social and leadership skills, and program quality and satisfaction. Lastly, BELL monitors a series of quality-related data points, including average daily attendance, teacher-to-scholar ratio, and student and staff retention, to ensure that each school’s program is implemented with fidelity to the BELL model.

Q: What scientific results have you seen?
A: An independent, rigorous, multi-site, randomized control trial of the BELL summer program, conducted by the Urban Institute with third-party funding, contributes strong evidence that the BELL summer model works. Participation in BELL summer had a positive and statistically significant impact on reading achievement of students in the program compared to students not participating in the program. On a grade-equivalent scale, this difference in achievement between the groups was about one month’s worth of reading skills, and the difference was much larger—gains of two and one-half months’ skills—for treatment-group students who completed the BELL program.

Participation in BELL summer had a positive and statistically significant impact on parents’ encouraging their children to read and parents’ frequency of reading to their children at home. Members of the treatment group spent fewer hours watching TV and playing computer games. Findings related to program replication indicated consistency in implementation across school sites and cities, including fidelity to the program model, consistency in quality, and regularity in student engagement across sites. The implementation study provides strong evidence that the BELL summer program model is replicable.

Q: Describe your model of professional development for BELL instructional staff—the variety you employ (teachers, tutors, assistants, specialists), and the use of virtual/digital learning that you are now offering to non-BELL staff as well.
A: BELL delivers a blended training model through which all program staff complete several hours of online training and two days of in-person, classroom-based training—a total of 29 hours of training and professional development. Topics include, for example: academic assessment; mentoring & efficacy; math instruction; literacy instruction; collaborative teaching; differentiating instruction; enrichment; and family engagement. Program managers, the “principals” of BELL sites, complete additional Web- and classroom-based training on managing assessment; community partnerships; and site leadership, among other topics. BELL’s digital-learning system began as a resource for BELL staff and has since grown into a resource for other organizations (BELL Success).

Q: What plans are in the works for BELL’s expansion, particularly with the news of the NSLA/Walmart grant earlier this summer?
A: BELL recently launched its 2012-2014 strategic plan, which calls for the expansion of BELL summer; the launch of program operations in three new states; the completion of a next-generation independent evaluation; and additional capacity-building investments to support quality and sustainability. The recent NSLA/Walmart grant is a big part of BELL’s summer expansion effort and is specifically driving the expansion of our work with middle school students. Additional grants, such as BELL’s recent Social Innovation Fund grant from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, support from the Wallace Foundation, and support from the New York Life Foundation (all three-year grants) also represent major investments in BELL’s expansion.

1: Tiffany Cooper Gueye
2: A BELL “scholar” at Holland Elementary School in Dorchester, Mass., works on her arts and crafts project as part of BELL’s enrichment curriculum.
3: BELL site manager, Daniel Guillen Jr., reads to 3rd grade BELL students for the National Education Association’s Read Across America Dr. Seuss tribute in April at P.S. 103 in the Bronx.
4: A BELL Teacher helps a BELL student with her math assignment.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Beyond School blog.