Student Achievement Opinion

Get to Know a C.E.O., with Tiffany Cooper Gueye

By Tom Segal — January 14, 2013 13 min read
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In this, the second installation of the series that has set the ed-tech blogosphere ablaze and captivated the hearts and minds of millions - “Get to Know a C.E.O” - we will meet Dr. Tiffany Cooper Gueye, C.E.O of Building Educated Leaders for Life (or simply BELL).

BELL was incorporated in 1992 and named in honor of Professor Derrick A. Bell, Jr., Harvard Law’s first Black tenured professor. The BELL after-school program reached 20 students in its first year of operation and has since developed an award-winning summer learning model, growing to serve 15,000 children annually in communities across the country. Its expanded learning programs have advanced a nationwide movement to redefine traditional notions of when, where, and how learning occurs.

Tiffany began with BELL in 1998 and worked her way right to the top of the organizational depth chart. As former Chief Operating Officer, she led all program development, service delivery, assessment and evaluation activities, and policy-related initiatives. Tiffany was named CEO three years ago (at the tender age of 28 - remarkable) and has continued the organization’s impressive advancement from the start. Additionally, like myself, Tiffany is a contributor to the Huffington Post - don’t be afraid to check out her stuff!

Equal parts humble and observant, Tiffany was a pleasure to meet and provided stimulating and engaging responses to my various queries. I would like to thank both Tiffany and the BELL organization for allowing me the opportunity to provide a platform to spread their message.
Without further adieu, let’s get to know Tiffany Cooper Gueye:

Elevator pitch: what is BELL and what problem are you trying to solve?

BELL’s work is centered on a core belief that all children have tremendous potential, that they are born with innate abilities and talents, and that with the right supports all children can excel. But today, all children do not excel, so we as a national nonprofit organization form partnerships with schools and school districts that are high-poverty and low-performing, and bring a set of evidence-based programs and philanthropic support to those communities by way of summer learning and after-school programs targeted at K-8 students.

Our program models are simple but rigorous and effective. In small group settings, we provide innovative, data-driven instruction in reading and math. That instruction is delivered by certified teachers and college students who hold high expectations for the children we serve; so much so that we call them “scholars.” We combine rigorous academics with enrichment opportunities so that scholars can explore potential career paths in the arts and sciences, and so that they get the physical and healthy social development that they need at that age as well. On top of that, we have a parent involvement emphasis and a focus on continual program improvement and measuring outcomes.

What changes have you noticed in the funding environment of academic programs over the few years that you have run BELL? Have the sources remained reasonably consistent?

I wish it was consistent, yet unfortunately they haven’t been. But I believe they have evolved in very positive ways. BELL has been around for 20 years and in the early days, we did the work we did purely with philanthropic support. That was a real value-add to schools and communities; however, that was not scalable. In recent years, we’ve seen schools and districts recognize the value of partnering with not-for-profit organizations, they have seen the leverage opportunity that is there with the private funding that we bring, and they have actually been putting forth public funds (typically Title I money) to help cover the cost of the expanded learning programs in a way that allows us to scale up and have a greater impact within a school or community. That’s been really positive.

I think, though, that we are seeing that evolve once again where the districts’ willingness to partner with a nonprofit and their understanding of the value proposition is there, but the actual resources are tough to find.

What role does education technology play in the BELL landscape? Is it simply a matter of increased access to tech, or are there specific programs in use that BELL leverages for data tracking or anything of the like?

In our program, the most consistent use of technology has been around assessment. We are trying to provide targeted instruction for students so that in a relatively short period of time - during a six-week summer program or in the hours after school - they get the maximum possible benefit. We want diagnostic data to tell us where they are strong and where they are weak, and we want to have that data as early in the process of working with them as possible. We use technology to do the assessments. We use computer adaptive assessments at some of our sites so that the test is really short for students - I assume you are familiar with computer adaptive assessments? (author’s note: Yes, I am. For those of you who are not, I recommend checking out this piece from Michelle Davis). That’s a really efficient way for us to collect data, and it allows us to get the results very rapidly. Most schools administer their formal assessment program and they don’t get the results for many weeks; we have them right away, and that helps inform instruction.

We are also using technology to deliver instruction at some of our sites. We are still at a pilot basis, but we see real potential for blended learning approaches. Most BELL programs are in small groups of about 1:8, one adult for every eight scholars. The blended learning approach allows for even 1:1 based on some of that assessment data that we have, and that’s proving to be really effective as we try to scale that up.

Then, of course, we use technology in our administration of the program so that we can track scholars’ participation rates: how many days per week they are attending; how many weeks; how many years do we retain them (YoY). That’s all proving to be very valuable in terms of the impact we are having.

Are there any politicians or specific initiatives that you can think of that have been particularly influential or transformational in increasing “seat” or “learning” time for young students directly within public-funded education?

There are several initiatives that are swirling around right now as it related to expanded learning time. Massachusetts has been a real leading state in that regard. A number of city-level efforts are taking the lead on expanded learning time, such as Summer Quest in New York City and Project L.I.F.T.'s efforts in Charlotte,and putting financial resources behind it so that it can become a model that is proven out. It has really been lifted up nationally. If you are looking for specific names, I think of state representative Marie St. Fleur who has been for many years in the Boston community and at the state-level in Massachusetts an advocate for expanded time, not just more time but quality time. I continuously hear the conversation at the federal-level around a clear need for more time, but there is still work to be done around parameters for how much time and how it is used.

In a world typically dominated by experienced men, what advantages do you think being a young female executive of a non-profit organization have provided for you?

I approach the work with a lot of modesty, and that’s been important because I think people sort of respect and value what I feel like I know and what I feel like I don’t know. That’s allowed me to surround myself in our organization with the sorts of talent that will round us out and help us do well.

I don’t have any ego about being a know-it-all or anything like that. In fact, I work hardest to get people much smarter than me on board here, and that’s worked really well. So our staff is made up of people much smarter than me, and we have a Board of national volunteers (fourteen of them) who represent the private sector, the public sector, the social sector, and institutions that are highly successful. Their contribution of their time and talent has been incredible for us. I think the modesty associated with my age has really allowed me to draw on resources that make us so much better than my leadership alone.

What role does your Board of Directors play in the success of BELL? Where is their influence most felt?

They are a group of incredibly strategic people. They have been very central to our strategic planning process, the process by which we reevaluate the assumptions of our strategy, how we think about sustainability, and how we think about scaling impact. The strategic thinking has been their single biggest factor, but like most nonprofit Boards, they have also been instrumental in helping us raise the financial resources we need to do our work. We are really grateful for their generosity in that regard.

I recently watched the PBS documentary on The Education of Michelle Rhee, and it was highlighted that Michelle had a moment of enlightenment while watching a film about Teach For America where she instantly became sure of what she wanted to do with her life. Does this ring true for you, and if so, what might the similar moment have been? What was it that pushed your career in this direction?

Absolutely. Based on what you just said, the moment that pops into my mind is probably from high school history class: when we used to do the civil rights unit in American history, we would watch these Eyes on the Prize documentaries. I was one of just a couple (maybe ten or so) black students in my high school, and in my particular history class I was the only black student.

I remember feeling really overwhelmed, like I wanted to cry when I saw a video from the civil rights era where policemen would sort of hose down African-American protesters, and I just felt so isolated because I couldn’t cry. I didn’t feel like anybody else in the room was understanding it the same way or feeling it the same way, and I just felt in that moment like, ‘wow, there are still too many racial divides.’ I think the achievement gap today is one of them, and I always have since high school, so my career has definitely been devoted to eliminating race-based correlations and achievements because all children have the same potential and there is no need for race to be correlated with achievement.

I have heard that you often hold “brown bag lunches” with your colleagues and employees. Where did this idea come from; and what did would you say is the impact (either on yourself or on BELL as an organization) that is derived from these lunches?

I think of them as having a two-part impact (and there are probably many others). One is for us to keep each other on the same page with the latest research so that we remain relevant in our thinking; each of us individually, and then us together as a team. Information comes from the field into BELL and we get on the same page about it, we talk about it, and it helps us remain fresh in our thinking and our work.
The other impact is that I think it does a sort of BELL out-to-the-field idea generation that allows us to innovate. When we get people in a room together from Finance and from H.R. and from I.T. with the program team to talk about ‘what’s going on right now in defining ELT,’ you hear somebody from the Finance team say something new and different that completely changes your thinking about expanded learning time. It allows us to innovate because we get different perspectives on the same issue, and often unlikely perspectives. So I think they are quite valuable.

What role do you think the private sector, and major corporations in particular, should have in facilitating the education of the next generation’s workforce? Is this strictly a financial relationship, or should it involve a more hands-on approach?

That’s a good question (author’s note: victory!). I think the financial relationship doesn’t have to be the exclusive point of entry, but I don’t want to have anyone misunderstand the important role of the financial relationship because I do think corporations often have substantial resources to devote to social problems and they have the flexibility to deploy those resources quickly, broadly, and specifically. They have a lot of flexibility in how they do it, and so I think there is an opportunity for them to take advantage of some of the social sector innovations that are out there right now that are well-researched and evidenced-based. They don’t need to try to recreate the wheel, but just lend the financial resources where that is an important thing to do. I don’t want to underestimate the power of that.

I do think there are other avenues. One of the ways in which BELL engages corporations is in providing some job shadow opportunities. That’s an age-old activity that goes on, but it really is hugely impactful for a child attending a high-poverty middle school for example, in sixth grade, doing their work and trying to keep up with their reading and math performance, thinking: ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be a good student or not. I don’t know about high school (let alone college).’ Students having doubts and really falling behind, to go into a corporate setting and see someone that looks like them and is sometimes even from their neighborhood doing their professional work and describing to the student how engaged they are in their jobs, what it took for them to get there, the fact that they went to college and earned a degree that was in a specific field - it opens up a range of possibilities for our Scholars, and that then drives them to succeed. I was talking to a Scholar recently who ultimately delivered a speech at one of our events in Boston, and he was describing how even though he is only now entering high school, he’s really focused on college and he wants to be a doctor. He talked to me about how BELL had given him the confidence to feel like that was something he could realistically have in his mind and work toward. So many students are low-performing and getting the message that they really should not be thinking about long-term aspirations like that.

So I think the role of the corporate community is to broaden the range of possibilities for our students and provide that kind of mentoring and shadowing opportunity, which doesn’t cost them very much at all.

Final question: what teacher was most influential in your development, and why?

I have had lots of great teachers... but one teacher that stands out for me is my high school calculus teacher. My high school was predominantly white and I was bused in from an inner-city community as part of a busing program. It was at the point in the year when we were preparing for our A.P. Calculus exam: we had done all the work to prepare, we had developed the different calculus concepts, and we had started the test prep (‘how do you approach the test,’ ‘what are the questions going to be like’). It was then time to do the paperwork to sign up for this test, and my teacher my teacher singled me out in the classroom. She said: ‘Tiffany, if you need financial assistance with paying for the test, just let me know or talk to the guidance counselor.’

I had gone all year really excelling at calculus and was ready to knock this A.P. exam out of the park, and she just completely put me in this small space around income and made an assumption about my ability to pay, and whether it was true or not, she called it out in front of the class. It was another one of these instances where I felt like a teacher can either position you for great success and have you believe that they think the world is the limit for you, and they don’t think you are any different from anyone else in terms of your potential and capability (which is really the core of what we are trying to do at BELL); or they can make you feel different in a way that’s bad, and then can have such a negative impact on you.

I went on to take the A.P. exam, but did not receive a high enough score to place out of it in college. I don’t know to what extent the psychological impact she had on me then influenced my test performance, but it just speaks to the power of teachers. This was not a positive experience, but it was an experience that motivated me and it influences my work today. I want every Scholar that comes through BELL to know that there is an adult in their life that cares about them and believes that the world is theirs, that they have tremendous potential, and that we are here to support them to get there.

The opinions expressed in Reimagining K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.