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Bethesda Magazine: Montgomery County Wants to Address ‘Summer Slide' With New Education Program

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BELL's Director of Regional Operations, Damon Johnson, at a Tuesday press conference with representatives from Montgomery County Public Schools, the Montgomery County Council, and the Norman & Ruth Rales Foundation.

By Aaron Kraut

November 19, 2015 - Montgomery County officials have high hopes that a six-week summer education program for low-income second- and third-graders can help narrow the county's longstanding achievement gap.

The program, from Boston-based nonprofit BELL, will be open to more than 1,000 county students for the first time next summer, thanks to $750,750 in county funding approved by the County Council Tuesday, a $475,375 donation from the Norman R. and Ruth Rales Foundation and $375,375 in donations from BELL's national fundraising activities.

Joshua Rales, a local philanthropist and trustee of the Rales Foundation, helped fund the BELL program last summer in Baltimore and said he believes in the organization because of detailed studies that have shown it to prevent the so-called "summer slide" in students from lower-income families.

"They don't have the same instruction opportunities for enrichment [over the summer] that a lot of their more affluent peers have," Rales told council members during a public hearing Tuesday on the special appropriation.

At a press conference a few minutes later, Rales said "together, we're going to drive a stake through the heart of the achievement gap."

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) and school systems nationwide have long tried to figure out how to improve reading, learning and test scores among low-income and minority students.

The majority-minority county has a fast-growing school system with more than 155,000 students this school year.

"This is not your grandfather's school system. This is not your grandfather's Montgomery County," council President George Leventhal said.

Rales approached council member Nancy Navarro with the idea to partner on setting up the BELL program. Navarro, who spearheaded the effort for $250,000 in county funding to start the Children's Opportunity Fund earlier this year, said Tuesday the BELL program was a prime example of the type of public-private partnerships the county needs if it is to succeed in narrowing the achievement gap.

"How many times do you get a local philanthropist come over and say, ‘Hey, here's this particular program that's of top-notch quality and fits all the criteria that the County Council has been discussing time and time again in all our committees,' " Navarro said. "I feel like this is a culture change for us in Montgomery County going forward."

The Children's Opportunity Fund, led on an interim basis by former Board of Education member Shirley Brandman, will join MCPS in figuring out over the next few months exactly where the program will happen and how it will be structured.

The program will operate six and a half hours a day, five days a week for six weeks, with a focus on small group literacy, science, math, arts and health instruction. The program also will offer breakfast and lunch to students each day. BELL will employ about 100 MCPS teachers and teaching assistants over the summer.

The pilot edition of the program next summer will be evaluated and could be scaled up, according to Rales and Navarro. The plan now, according to Rales, is for the county to fund a quarter of the program's costs in the summer of 2017, with a quarter of the funding coming from MCPS, a quarter from the Rales Foundation and a quarter from BELL donors.

"Montgomery County has a wonderful infrastructure to accommodate a program like this," Rales said. "We need to be innovative. We need to bring private money to the table, which we've done. We need to cooperate."