BellXcel CEO Joins Voices of Support for President Biden’s FY22 Budget Proposal

Lauren Sanchez Gilbert

President Biden’s FY22 budget request proposes strong and necessary investments in youth development. Summer and afterschool providers nationwide would have the critical opportunity to provide the level of programming required to address the losses our youth have experienced over the past year.

BellXcel’s decades of experience in evidence-based, high quality youth programming propels me to spotlight the urgency of whole-child investments in communities across the country.  Our youth need high-quality summer and afterschool experiences to thrive academically and emotionally and to grow beyond the school day.

Investing in programming based in evidence and adaptable to meet the unique needs of each community is critical. A one-size fits most approach will only further exacerbate and expose the inherent inequity so prevalent in our education system. True possibility of economic mobility begins early in life when all children have access to a strong pipeline of high-quality activities throughout their youth.

Our evidence proves that providing local educators and youth leaders with the tools, resources, professional learning, and support they need to build impactful learning experiences leads to real improved outcomes. We have witnessed first-hand, many times over, that the greatest impact can be made by serving each child, through the adults that they know, with strategies that work. 

These are remarkable times to be a leader in youth development and education and I thank President Biden for this historic proposal. 

Highlights of some of President Biden’s FY22 budget request include:

  • $20B for new Title 1 Equity Grants to support unserved communities
  • $1.3B for 21st Century Community Learning Centers to boost out of school time programming, including teacher professional development
  • $443M for Full-Service Community Schools for comprehensive services to youth and their families, from afterschool to health/nutrition services
  • $1B for new School-Based Health Professionals to double the number of counselors, nurses and mental health professionals in schools
  • $16B for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to support special education and related services Pre-K through 12


Our BellXcel team is committed to partnering with youth organizations and schools to maximize the quality of their programming for youth, educators, and families in communities nationwide. President Biden’s historic budget proposal gives us all a momentous leg up to ensure all children can excel! 


Lauren Sanchez Gilbert, Ed.D.
Chief Executive Officer

BellXcel Names 2020 Educator of the Year


Amidst the most challenging summer of 2020, a light shone bright at the Southeast Ventura County YMCA.

Julie Birkett, Site Director for the Y’s Find My Genius program, deftly led one of the few in-person summer programs anywhere in Southern California and has been named BellXcel’s 2020 Educator of the Year. As a leading national nonprofit in youth development, BellXcel recognizes outstanding educators dedicated to scholar success.

Julie Birkett, BellXcel Educator of the Year 2020
Julie Birkett, BellXcel Educator of the Year 2020

The award recognizes an educator who best exemplifies BellXcel’s core values of excellence, learning, respect, courage and collaboration. Julie was chosen out of more than 1,000 educators nationwide and her program served 140 rising 1st through 5th grade scholars.

Julie has been involved with the summer program at the Southeast Ventura County YMCA since the program launched in summer 2018, the same year she was honored as the Teacher of the Year for the Greater Conejo Valley. Fueled by her passion to make a difference in the lives of her scholars, Julie served as an academic teacher in 2018 and 2019 before stepping into a leadership capacity as Site Director amidst the tumultuous atmosphere of summer 2020.

Leaning into her dedication and experience, Julie steadfastly managed family and staff safety concerns and constantly-changing county health department protocols while ensuring a high-quality learning experience for scholars. She never lost sight of the high standards that the Y set for their Find My Genius program and the results speak for themselves. Scholars gained more than 3 months in ELA and Math skills and reported an average daily attendance of 88%.

A Zooming Surprise

Julie was informed of the honor during a board meeting for the Y. BellXcel CEO Lauren Sanchez Gilbert joined the Zoom call as a special guest and shared the news with the group and our very surprised and extraordinarily worthy recipient. Moments later Julie’s doorbell rang and she was presented with the award and a bouquet of flowers.

Lauren remarked, “It is my honor and privilege to recognize Julie as the BellXcel 2020 Educator of the Year. Set against the backdrop of a global pandemic and the unprecedented challenges educators have faced, it is especially inspiring to witness Julie’s embodiment of everything that this award represents.”

As summer 2021 draws closer and COVID-19 restrictions ease, a celebration in Julie’s honor is planned for this summer to be shared with her colleagues and the scholars she cherishes. We look forward to sharing more of the celebration and fun!


About Find My Genius, Southeast Ventura County YMCA

Find My Genius is a special, no-cost summer learning program launched by the Southeast Ventura County YMCA to help children catch up, stay on track or get ahead on their reading and math skills while providing summer camp fun! To qualify, children must be on free or reduced-priced lunch program and score below grade level at their school. For more information, visit www.sevymca.org.

Meeting the Complex Summer Learning Needs of a Rural Community

Wabash is a small, tight-knit community, with a population of just over 10,000, located in the north central part of Indiana. While rich in local pride and natural beauty, it is a struggling community, with over 13-percent of its residents living below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Prior to the Power Scholars Academy (PSA) programming in rural Wabash, Indiana, Stacey Fry, Director of Youth Development at Wabash County YMCA, recalls driving by homes over the summer and seeing children sitting idly on front steps, or playing outdoors alone. “That drive home from work felt sad,” she reminisces. “We saw a need for summer learning. Our local districts weren’t able to provide that, but the need still existed.”

Now, every summer, many of those same children can be found immersed in local schools, gaining key academic and social-emotional skills. The summer learning program combines fun, dynamic literacy and math instruction with hands-on enrichment, making for a holistic experience that prepares scholars for school-year success. “They are learning in a classroom setting and it feels good,” said Fry. “When we all work together, the children benefit.”

In 2015, in their quest to address the achievement gap in their local community, the Wabash County YMCA in partnership with the Y USA Achievement Gap programming connected with BellXcel. The program has earned measurable scholar and educator outcomes ever since.

“That’s why we still have a partnership with the schools, because we provide a good return on investment. They are able to show their students are making strides in the summer,” Fry says.

Professional Development Equips Educators

Teacher empowerment via BellXcel’s professional development is at the core of the PSA program. Prior to the summer program, educators receive in-person and virtual training in program administration, curriculum & instruction, culture & climate, evaluation & assessment, family engagement, and scholar management. Professional development prepares partners to implement a high-quality summer program that meets the needs of their learning community. “One good benefit of being a BellXcel partner is the trust. If we have challenges, there is a whole team of people who are ready to help us,” says Fry.

Academic teachers in Wabash are all local certified school teachers. This ensures that instruction is of the highest caliber, and aligned with school year success. “We are able through BellXcel to offer so much more professional development in a concentrated way, than what teachers receive over the school year.”

One of Fry’s poignant stories that captures the program’s power involves a PSA academic instructor who has been a local educator for over 20 years. The educator expressed that she was drawn to PSA due to its intentional instruction, and small group environments. The PSA program in Wabash maintains a ratio of 1 academic teacher to 12 scholars.

“She said to me, ‘I get to see these kids I saw before in a whole different light. I pour into them academically, but have the opportunity to see their creative side and that’s lost in the school-year classroom,” Fry says. “She sees these glimpses and that touched me. She gets revitalized with the same kids she spends time with during the school year.”

Strengthening Schools

The PSA has also helped connect the local Y with local schools over the summer and combine resources to offer much more than the usual summer camp type activities such as sports and recreation. She also credits the Y’s strong relationship with the State of Indiana’s Department of Education and local school districts to address the achievement gap.

“I have the privilege of deepening those relationships, and working closely with the school principals, to ensure they are seeing the outcomes and are connected to our mission,” she says. “Schools are working as hard as they can. They don’t have significant resources to move that needle. So, it’s nice to fill in that gap and take that off their plate so they can focus on what they do best.”

Safe Environment to Thrive

PSA is not only addressing the educational gap. Educators have also seen some secondary benefits, such as keeping children occupied, safe, and healthy. Often, Fry says, parents leave their children at home with older siblings, a less than ideal situation. Summer scholars receive free breakfast, snack and lunch and the program is provided at no cost to participating families.

“For most of their summer, we are able to nourish them and enrich them in a safe environment,” Fry says. “We are in a childcare desert. If we can lower the stresses faced by parents, it positively impacts the scholars.”


Educators Say Summer is an Excellent Opportunity to Polish Skills and Grow in their Careers

Scholars are not the only ones benefitting from YMCA of Greater San Antonio’s Power Scholar Academy (PSA). In fact, the BellXcel model is driven by the belief that the key to scholar success is educator empowerment.

“BellXcel has wonderful resources online and teacher toolkits that we use for a successful summer and in our careers for years to come,” said Bonnie Cavazos, instructional coach, who has served as the school librarian for 15 years, and as a local educator for over 27 years in the San Antonio school district. “We collaborate with each other as educators. We are all colleagues with a common goal.”

Educators say the summer program presents an opportunity to learn how to teach other grade levels. It also serves as a dynamic environment for mentoring and networking. Educators are not only connecting and building relationships with students, but with each other, in powerful ways. Younger teachers collaborate with more experienced ones, picking up new skills along the way.

Academic instructors also receive support from instructional coaches, who are experienced school teachers, creating a cycle of continuous learning and improvement. Cavazos and Carrol visit all classes throughout the day after testing and data analysis to observe classrooms, speak to scholars, support instruction, or jump in and guide discussion.

“Our role is to serve as a supportive pillow,” Amber Carroll, instructional coach and elementary teacher, says with a laugh. “We bounce ideas off teachers to make sure things run smoothly. We look at data to see where students should be, and have conversations with teachers to see how we can grow towards success. BellXcel gives us a great scope and sequence for us to follow.”

For many educators, the summer program represents an excellent opportunity to polish their skills and grow in their professional careers. “Working with different teachers and students in a different capacity, and gaining experience over the summer, is preparing me for a more effective school year, and a leadership position in the future,” said Carroll, who is nearing her degree to become a certified principal.

Educators say the BellXcel-powered summer program also boosts their motivation for teaching as its delivered in a more relaxed environment in smaller group environments, with increased support as compared to the school year.

“We’re having fun. We’re engaging,” said Carroll. “We see our class sizes so large during the school year, it’s hard to have that targeted instruction,” said Carroll. “Coming in as a teacher, you don’t have to teach to a test. You don’t have to worry about an end-game. We just want to make sure students get access to the learning they need, where they’re at. It’s a completely different world than teaching in the school year.”

Investment Leads to Impact in Washington, D.C.

It’s a bustling summer morning outside of Seaton Elementary School in the historic Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Eager children, led by their parents, stream into the school. They come from different age groups, races and backgrounds, but they share something in common. The children, enrolled in the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington’s school-based Power Scholar Academy (PSA), are all excited to learn.

As the K-6 scholars kick off their day, they are greeted with a familiar, endearing smile. “Good morning Ms. Janice!” the scholars exclaim one by one, as they greet Janice Williams in the lobby. With smiles radiating from ear to ear, the enrolled students, known as scholars, then embark on a full day of learning and enrichment at the Y’s summer learning program, powered by BellXcel.

Since 2013, the evidence-based summer program has empowered thousands of children through a holistic learning experience that has boosted scholars’ academic and social-emotional skills, as well as their self-confidence.

“Every day is a day where you’ll find scholars running to the program because they are excited about what they gain,” says Williams, YMCA of Metropolitan’s Senior Vice President for Program Development.

For her local community, Williams is more than a nonprofit administrator. She is a tireless and passionate supporter of expanding afterschool and summer learning for children from under-resourced communities. She has been with the YMCA for nearly 45 years, and with PSA since its inception. “Many of our schools that are in under-resourced communities don’t have the opportunity to meet the needs of all of the students that they have identified as struggling students,” she says. “We’re able to identify the particular area of challenge for scholars, and really put the resources in place to guide them to be more successful.”

“We have been so fortunate to have BellXcel’s support in Washington, D.C. Before, there were camp programs. There was summer school. But there was something missing,” Williams said. “PSA is among the best programs out there because it not only provides opportunity for academic support, it also provides opportunities for scholars to learn new things through enrichment. It’s supported by committed educators who want to be a part of a program that allows them to connect and provide young people with the social-emotional learning that is critically needed.”

With an educator to scholar ratio of 2 to 24, William says the program’s small group environments are a key differentiator. In each classroom, a certified teacher and teaching assistant lead individual, small group, and whole group exercises, in dynamic learning environments. With the utilization of instructional coaches and other support staff rotating, it is not uncommon to see upwards of three to four educators in a classroom, all working together to provide an exceptional high-touch learning experience.

“This kind of learning style really does impact our ability to provide them with the necessary support to thrive,” Williams says. “There is a high value in that child-centered learning. We are also excited about the peer-to-peer learning that the program supports and empowers.”

PSA also empowered educators with 21st century instructional skills and strategies they can transmit into the classroom in the school year. Among teachers surveyed, 87 percent said site leaders were highly supportive of educators; 89 percent said teaching in PSA was rewarding, while 80 percent of teachers want to work with the program again.

“We are pretty fortunate to be able to have scholars that are receiving something during the course of the summer, as well as educators, who apply their learnings into the classroom in the fall,” says Williams. “The partnership is critical because BellXcel allows the YMCA to present itself to the community with a stamp of excellence. They bring the kind of skills and resources that are going to enhance the school community and allow it to reach the level and the goals that the school has in mind.”

Williams says the demand for evidence-based summer learning programs in her community remains high, and advocates for continued support. “I would truly invite any funder to go and visit a site. It is truly something that you have to witness to be able to see what the scholars are receiving and the type of investment that is being made, and having scholars learn, thrive, and really the impact on not only the summer learning, but the true impact that it allows, and the potential of each and every scholar to succeed and excel.”


Professional Learning that Leads to Increased Teacher Satisfaction … and Scholar Success!

Q&A with Beth Putnam, Assistant Director, Department of Alternative Education, Saint Paul, MN

The mission of the Department of Alternative Education in Saint Paul, Minnesota is to provide focused daytime, extended day, and summer learning opportunities to support student achievement leading to graduation. Power Scholars Academy (PSA) has been a summer learning program at Saint Paul Public Schools for seven years.

In your opinion, what distinguishes Power Scholars Academy from summer camps and other programs?

Power Scholars Academy offers a unique experience to students in both structure and content. Due to collaborative use of funds, scholars attend more hours and days than in most of our other programs, making it possible to teach core academics in the morning with licensed staff and enrichment, including field trips, in the afternoon with YMCA staff. The number of scholars working with each adult is lower than in most other programs, making differentiated one-to-one and small-group instruction more feasible. The literacy curriculum reflects the racial and cultural identity of students who attend, and data shows it is successful in meeting its intended results. As a bonus, scholars get to take books home.

What elements of the PSA program are particularly conducive to the success of scholars and educators?

The PSA curriculum, including assessments, supports teachers in knowing exactly what each scholar needs. Staff receive extensive training, materials are high interest, and scholars are able to do interest- and community-based experiential learning in the afternoons—these are all benefits leading to success. It is the perfect opportunity for scholars to stay physically active, maintain their academic skills, and develop social and emotional and leadership skills while learning more about their community, other people, and themselves.

How does PSA empower educators during the summer, and is this impact being felt in the school year?

Many of our PSA educators come back year after year. Although the school-year curriculum and instruction may be different than what is used for PSA, what is learned during PSA professional development and throughout the session becomes part of how staff approach and carry out their work during the school year. The close student and staff relationships built during PSA provide a solid basis for those whose work together continues past the session, ultimately increasing student success and staff job satisfaction.

New RAND Study Shows BellXcel Boosts Teacher Practices Throughout the School Year – a Statistically Significant Finding!

Read the full case study!

Summer can be a good time to boost teacher practices
Opportunities for practicing student-centered skills and developmental feedback more critical than ever

Ninety-nine percent of teachers engaged in some type of summer professional learning activities in 2019 and applied relevant strategies and tools to improve their school year practices. Yet, according to a first-ever national survey of teachers’ summer professional learning highlighted in a recent RAND Corporation study, opportunities for developmental feedback as part of summer professional learning were uncommon. On the heels of the COVID-19 crisis and extended school closures, access to high-quality professional learning experiences for teachers is more critical than ever.

RAND surveyed K-12 teachers nationally through its American Teacher Panel (ATP) and studied BellXcel Summer (BXS), an evidence-based summer program model that provides academic instruction, rooted in social and emotional learning (SEL), to students and professional learning opportunities for teachers. The study explored the national context of professional learning, including teacher perceptions of their experiences, and investigated how BXS teacher experiences compare with those in other programs across the country.

The research evidence is clear that summer is a prime opportunity for children to strengthen academic and social and emotional skills through high-quality, evidence-based programs. Study co-author, Elizabeth D. Steiner, a policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization, commented, “The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequities that affect students’ ability to learn and nearly all students have been affected by school closures. Our survey of teachers found those employed in summer programs that provide academic instruction could also improve in certain classroom practices during the school year – particularly strategies to support students’ SEL and positive behavior management.”

BellXcel CEO Lauren Gilbert, Ed.D, a former educator and school administrator, remarked, “Summer programs are more critical than ever to mitigate learning loss, and this study clearly demonstrates that teachers need to be part of that catch-up initiative. Programs such as those powered by BXS offer teachers powerful, on-the-job professional development opportunities to freely explore and expand their student-centered instruction skills and practices – including positive behavior management and social and emotional learning, without the pressures and constraints of the school year.”

Academic summer programs for students—run by school districts and community-based youth development organizations alike—can incorporate teacher professional learning into their own summer programs. The findings in this study can help school leaders and program administrators to make teacher professional learning an intentional piece of their programs and focus on strategies that teachers can use during the school year.

Key Findings:

  • Nationally, 99 percent of teachers participated in one or more professional learning activities over the summer and believed that they were relevant, helpful for improving instructional practice, and just as useful as other activities the teachers’ schools and districts provided. However, opportunities to receive developmental feedback (i.e., feedback for the purpose of developing instructional skills) about instruction in the summer were uncommon.
  • Teaching in an academic-focused summer program may provide teachers nationally with opportunities—such as coaching and observations—to receive developmental feedback about instruction and to practice and improve in certain classroom practices.
  • According to teachers, BellXcel Summer (BXS), an academic-focused summer program for students that provides professional learning opportunities to its teachers, had a positive and supportive environment that supported their professional learning.
  • BXS teachers reported that the absence of school-year constraints such as testing and curriculum pacing requirements made the use of some student-centered classroom practices easier during the summer than during the school year.
  • BXS teachers were more likely than teachers nationally to report that their summer professional learning experiences helped them improve their use of student-centered practices during the school year.
  • Academic summer programs may provide unique professional learning opportunities for teachers to practice and improve their use of student-centered classroom practices—particularly positive behavior management and promoting social and emotional learning for students. BXS provided useful insights into the features of academic summer programs that may facilitate teachers’ professional learning, such as the absence of school-year constraints paired with positive and supportive teaching environments.

Innovating to Meet the Moment: How BellXcel leveraged strategic alliances and disruptive thinking to create a new solution in response to COVID-19

This past March, as schools and youth development organizations nationwide found themselves faced with reimagining how they serve their communities, our team did what we have done best throughout our history – innovated to meet the moment. With a 6-week timeline, our team took 30 years of science and know-how, lifted by the support of our community, and dug into our commitment for all children to excel.

COVID-19 forced changes to virtually every aspect of life as we knew it, yet along with the unknowns and the very real crisis this pandemic represented, before us was an opportunity to disrupt our thinking and mobilize our resources into unchartered territory.

We invite you to share in the story of BellXcel Remote.

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Remote Quality Reflection Tool

With nearly three decades of experience creating evidence-based programs, we know how important program quality is to a young person’s experience and ability to learn and grow. Assessing quality in a remote environment is new to many organizations and was top-of-mind for us as we created BellXcel Remote, our evidence-based, teacher-led approach that adapts the classroom experience for home use during this time of distance learning.

We called upon our affiliate, The Sperling Center for Research and Innovation (SCRI), to create the Remote Quality Reflection Tool for our remote program partners to assess and understand program quality.


Who can use this tool?

We are pleased to make this tool publicly available to empower any program to drive improvement through identifying areas of strength and progress on research-based indicators. We believe that the use of this tool will help to increase the collective knowledge base of remote learning.


Learn how to use this tool

Access a series of informative videos to gain guidance, suggestions and best practices when utilizing the Remote Quality Reflection Tool.

Click here


Download this free tool today!



Video Tutorials – Remote Quality Reflection Tool

In our efforts to support you in using the Remote Quality Reflection Tool, we are pleased to provide the following videos that offer guidance, suggestions, and best practices when completing indicator ratings and reflecting on quality. Each video focuses on specific areas related to the tool purpose, use and completion, evidence collection, and making the data actionable within your remote learning programs. We hope you will find this information helpful as you rate and reflect on your program quality. Additionally, we encourage you to contact us with your feedback or if we can be of assistance.

Introduction to the Remote Quality Reflection Tool


1. Purpose, Goals and Evidence


2. How to Use the Remote Quality Reflection Tool


3. Evidence Collection


4. Reflection and Continuous Improvement