A nonprofit founded in 1992

The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Nonprofit Boosts Kids' Math and Reading Skills Over the Summer

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Students in a Queens, N.Y., program puzzle over a question.

By Caroline Bermudez
June 16, 2014

For one charity, summer isn't a time to relax but to charge ahead.

Building Educated Leaders for Life, or BELL, provides after-school and summer programs for low-income children in urban areas, to help reverse the seasonal erosion of math and reading skills.

"Kids are really suffering from what is known as summer learning loss," says Tiffany Cooper Gueye, leader of BELL, in Boston.

The average American student loses one month of math and reading skills per summer, according to a 2011 study by the RAND Corporation. Low-income children's literacy skills are set back two months, the study found. By contrast, the average BELL participant gains the equivalent of 1.4 months in reading skills and 1.7 months in math.

Operating in 11 cities, BELL's summer programs serve 10,000 children in kindergarten through eighth grade. Schools and school districts ask the charity to help students who are the most in need. For up to six weeks-as much as eight hours a day, five days a week-children receive breakfast and lunch and get instruction in reading and math. They also enjoy recess and arts, music, and science activities.

The programs try to strike a balance between work and play, Ms. Gueye says. The result is "fun like a summer camp would be," she says, but aimed at complementing the work of the school district.

BELL was born out of a heartbreaking realization. During the early 1990s, a group of black and Latino students at Harvard Law School volunteered at a local public school mentoring teenage students. Gradually, the volunteers learned their students could read at only a second-grade level. In response, several volunteers, led by Earl Martin Phalen and Andrew L. Carter, created BELL in 1992.

Half of BELL's $22-million annual budget comes from government grants. The other half comes from private support: Target is BELL's lead corporate sponsor, and the group has received grants from the Wallace and Edna McConnell Clark foundations and the John M. Belk Endowment.

BELL has a waiting list of about 3,000 kids, and the charity is expanding quickly to meet the demand. This summer it's opening a new affiliate in Dayton, Ohio, and is collaborating with the YMCA of the USA to expand to eight additional cities, where programs will be run at local Y chapters. It's also planning a pre-kindergarten program.

Students continue to reap the benefits of BELL programs long after their time in the programs end, says Ms. Gueye. "They come back as graduates of high school and as college students and serve as tutors for the next generation of BELL scholars. It's really amazing to see."