2022 BellXcel Peterkin Award Winner Named

Pursue our mission with energy and purpose; innovate bold, intuitive solutions; embrace personal responsibility; promote collaboration; trust and inclusiveness; empower results and impact – these are the core values of BellXcel. The annual Peterkin Award, named after Dr. Robert B. Peterkin, a pioneer in educational leadership and past BellXcel Board Director, celebrates the employee, nominated by their colleagues, that best exemplifies the organization’s core values.

On April 6th, 2023 during a company wide meeting BellXcel CEO, Dr. Lauren Sanchez Gilbert, announced the winner of the 2022 Peterkin Award, Denise Cage. Denise began her career with BellXcel in November 2021 and serves as the Assistant Director, Customer Experience. Throughout her tenure, Denise has earned the respect and admiration of colleagues across the organization. The announcement was met with an immediate wave of congrats and applause, offering further testament to how deserving Denise was of this honor.

During Denise’s tenure at BellXcel, she has made the goals, concerns, and overall success of customers her number one priority. “Denise focuses on several details (for several different customers) at once, while maintaining a view for the high-level goal of customer experience and BellXcel efficiency,” said Danielle Caban, Director, Research & Analytics. “She worked through several customer needs related to evaluation and reporting with persistence, thoroughness, and an eye for getting the customer what they needed to serve their community while remaining mindful of internal BellXcel team structures, capacity, and value.”

Denise is an incredible asset to the BellXcel team. “She consistently and beautifully demonstrates the BellXcel Values,” said Kris Murray, Associate Vice President, Account Development. Kris continued, “Denise serves as my eyes, ears, and intuition with customers, always letting me know when some additional support is needed. I trust her insights implicitly and can confidently move forward with the information that she shares with me.” Hailey Carter, a colleague within the Customer Experience team shared that “Denise works hard, yet quietly, behind the scenes. I just hope she knows that people notice all that she does for our customers!”

Denise was incredibly honored, and surprised, to receive this recognition. When asked about receiving the award, Denise remarked, “It’s nice to take a step back and see that the work I do makes a difference.” Denise’s favorite part about working for BellXcel is being able to see the impact of her work. She said, “It’s one thing to be behind the computer, but a totally different thing to go to the sites and see the impact we make – it warms my heart and keeps me going.”

Congratulations on this well deserved recognition, Denise!

The Power of Partnerships: Exploring How a Partnership with BellXcel Influences Systems Changes

In 2021, BellXcel commissioned the Sperling Center for Research and Innovation (SCRI) to study the potential effects of its partnership model on its partners’ internal systems (for example, practices, policies, operations) and external community ecosystems (relationships, power dynamics, funding). While this exploratory study was on a small qualitative scale, the ultimate goal is to develop a multi-year research strategy to understand and capture the impact and influence BellXcel has on its partners.This longerterm study will include developing a robust logic model and rigorous measurement strategies.

Read the full case study

Overdeck Family Foundation Enhances Education Field

A leading supporter of BellXcel’s work, the Overdeck Family Foundation has funded BellXcel since 2019.

Gemma Lenowitz has served as a program officer in the Inspired Minds portfolio at the Overdeck Family Foundation since 2018. Previously, she served as a STEM coordinator and 12th grade lead at MESA Charter High School, where she founded and coached a robotics team, taught Bioengineering and Computer Science, and implemented edtech and project-based learning.

BellXcel: What are your big-picture goals at Overdeck? 

Gemma: Our mission is to measurably enhance education inside and outside the classroom. We focus exclusively on education, funding efforts both inside and outside of school in the areas of early childhood, informal STEM education, and K-9 programs that include supporting educators and student-centered learning environments.

Our priority for the next three years is to continue to scale cost-effective models and organizations that accelerate improvement in academic and socioemotional outcomes for all kids. Specifically, we hope to use our grantmaking and strategic support to unlock innovation, build and strengthen organizational capacities, help grantees generate evidence, and support grantees in attracting follow-on funding. We will continue to fund research, learning, and measurement to ensure that we understand the outcomes of our grantmaking. 

BellXcel: How does BellXcel fit into that picture? What caught your attention about the organization?

Gemma: Thanks to the Institute for Educational Sciences, the Wallace Foundation and other evidence aggregators, there are reviews that demonstrate program effectiveness in alignment with ESSA’s tiered levels of evidence. Beyond BellXcel having the highest level of evidence, it was the breadth of research historically and in progress and the learning and improvement orientation of the team that stood out to me.  

If you zoom out and think about after-school programs, they’ve been providing positive experiences for youth for decades, but it was clear that BellXcel was thinking about how to do that in the 21st century, leveraging edtech. The design is more efficient, with technology solutions that don’t replace human interaction, but actually eliminate some of the onerous administrative tasks so programs can operate more smoothly. What I quickly noticed about the platform is that it can actually give educators more time to plan great instruction, and more time with scholars. As a former teacher and coach, I knew those were two critical elements for student success. That’s what caught our eye originally and why we chose to invest.

BellXcel: What most excites/inspires you about BellXcel’s work and future?

Gemma: The first piece is just impact. We think the program can continue to have strong outcomes and provide the right delivery model for every site to see success for their kids. The second piece is that the tech enables a level of scalability. That’s new, I think, to the out-of-school time field. They’re the first SaaS Enterprise solution that I’ve heard about that centralizes all of the components on the platform, which makes it able to scale faster. And then on the other side of that, there’s the demand. The contracts that BellXcel has won recently underscore that there are so many kids out there who could benefit from these services, and the adults in decision-making capacity in their communities believe that, too. I really appreciate that they are ready to deliver, because this moment asks so much of teachers and parents. 

BellXcel: What excites you the most about philanthropy right now?

Gemma: I’m really excited about the conversations about proximity and empathy in tech and in philanthropy. I think educator and student needs evolved faster than ever during COVID. And, educators and ed tech organizations need to stay on top of what’s happening and develop services and products that resonate with their audience. 

Funders didn’t previously have a lot of insight into what their beneficiaries needed, and the grantee often acted as the intermediary. Now, I think funders can get much sharper insights into the current needs so that we’re not relying on perception or old data. And, philanthropy is now more visibly and loudly encouraging nonprofits to make sure that their solution centers the experiences of their target population and that they use tools to gather better data. For example, we use the “net promoter” score with a lot of our grantees to understand the user experience on their platform or with their service. And now through the Fund for Shared Insight, (a group of philanthropists), and a service called Listen for Good, (a survey tool), we can put the end user’s voice at the forefront. By elevating the voices that are least heard in systems, we can match products and services to their specific needs.

BellXcel: What are the greatest opportunities you see in K-12 education and OST? 

Gemma: There are a lot of elements that were developed during COVID that we think should stay, including an increased focus on the home-school connection that will continue to be a focus for the foundation. This includes thinking about school readiness supports at home. What does it mean for a child to be school ready? What does it mean for a school to be ready for that child? There’s a more racially and ethnically diverse set of students than ever before in public schools across the country this year, but they are also diverse in terms of interests and talents, too. So, how do we think about elevating those unique assets? In philanthropy, we’ll continue to support the scale of evidence-based practices and innovation to meet these and other new demands and challenges as they arise. 

About Overdeck Family Foundation

Founded in 2011 by John and Laura Overdeck, Overdeck Family Foundation‘s goal is to provide all children the opportunity to unlock their potential. Grantmaking and strategic support focus on unlocking innovation, evidence, and growth opportunities for organizations and researchers that are committed to accelerating key academic and socioemotional outcomes for all children.

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.

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.

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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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.

Susan Crown Exchange Focuses on SEL

Susan Crown Exchange’s support allowed BellXcel to refine its social emotional learning supports for youth and educators.

For scholars like fourth-grader, Yocelyn, BellXcel provides unique opportunities to shine. As a dual-language learner, Yocelyn began the BellXcel summer program in Montgomery County reluctant to participate and ask questions. After five-weeks of working with supportive and empowered teachers in small-group instruction and team-based enrichment courses, Yocelyn has transformed into a confident leader. She now is the first one to raise her hand to share her perspective during group discussion and is eager to help her peers problem-solve tough concepts and try new things.

Recognizing that all learning is social and emotional, Susan Crown Exchange has partnered with BellXcel to help more educators create a positive culture and climate for scholar success. A generous $200,000 grant from Susan Crown Exchange, has supported the evaluation and expansion of BellXcel’s professional development (PD) offerings in social and emotional learning (SEL).  In 2019, BellXcel conducted a thorough review of program assessments, field research, and partner needs in SEL. During the COVID-19 crisis, we are now working closely with community partners across the nation to ensure engaging and trauma-informed instruction reach scholars this school year, in the summer, and beyond. Susan Crown Exchange’s continued support in 2020-2021 enables BellXcel to quickly respond to this immediate need and help educators infuse SEL in their classrooms and new remote learning settings.

New York Life Foundation Expands Access

New York Life Foundation’s support empowered BellXcel to think differently about how we support middle school youth.

BellXcel receives $3 million investment to expand access to summer and afterschool learning from the New York Life Foundation

BOSTON (April 2019) –BellXcel, a national education nonprofit, today announced a $3 million, three-year grant from the New York Life Foundation that will help the organization to expand access to evidence-based summer and afterschool learning for 12,000 at-risk middle-schoolers across the U.S.

This grant will help BellXcel develop new solutions to support its national network of program partners, which aim to strengthen the academic and social-emotional skills of middle school students. BellXcel programs have been proven to yield measurable gains in academics and social-emotional learning. Last summer, BellXcel scholars gained 2.5 months of math skills and 2.0 months of reading skills through five-to-six-week programs, reversing summer learning loss.

 “BellXcel’s proven success in the out-of-school time space aligns with our efforts to ensure that youth have year-round holistic learning experiences that develop important academic and social emotional skills,” said Marlyn Torres, senior program officer, New York Life Foundation. “We are dedicated to expanding access to high-quality out-of-school time programs for middle school students because they help prepare youth for long-term success.”

The New York Life Foundation’s investment will enhance BellXcel’s service offerings, including the development of an innovative technology platform that will allow for greater customization of program offerings to better meet the needs of BellXcel partners. It will also allow BellXcel to provide hundreds of middle school educators with professional development and in-service learning opportunities to enhance their teaching practice.

“With New York Life Foundation’s generous gift, we will strengthen our program model and delivery practices to scale up our collective impact on at-risk middle school students from urban, peri-urban, and rural communities,” said Lauren Sanchez Gilbert, BellXcel CEO. “It will expand our ability to empower partners to deliver summer and afterschool programs that yield measurable outcomes for both students and educators on a greater scale.”


About the New York Foundation

Inspired by New York Life’s tradition of service and humanity, the New York Life Foundation has, since its founding in 1979, provided nearly $280 million in charitable contributions to national and local nonprofit organizations. The Foundation supports programs that benefit young people, particularly in the areas of educational enhancement and childhood bereavement. The Foundation also encourages and facilitates the community involvement of employees and agents of New York Life through its Volunteers for Good and Grief-Sensitive Schools programs. To learn more, visit www.newyorklifefoundation.org.