Ballmer Group’s Strategic Investment

Ballmer Group’s $30 million 10-year grant was catalytic in helping to enhance and scale BellXcel’s evidence-based programming.

Record 10-year $30 million grant from Ballmer Group to expand educational access to reduce summer slide

July 20 2017


BOSTON – BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life), the largest evidence-based summer learning provider in the U.S. and a national leader in PK-8 out-of-school time (OST) education, received a 10-year $30 million grant from Ballmer Group. It is the largest grant in BELL’s 25-year history. Founded by former Microsoft CEO and Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie, Ballmer Group supports organizations and initiatives aimed at improving economic mobility for children and families in the U.S.

BELL estimates that 7.5 million K-8 students from underserved communities are performing significantly below grade level. Up to two-thirds of the nation’s academic achievement gap is due to lack of access to quality summer learning programs. Students who are not proficient readers by third grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school and face lower lifelong earnings.

Ballmer Group’s grant will support BELL’s mission to eliminate summer slide by strengthening the capacity of school districts and youth-serving nonprofits to deliver BELL’s high-quality, measurable and sustainable summer learning programs on a larger scale. Ballmer Group’s support will allow BELL to increase programmatic efficiencies to better meet the needs of scholars, parents and teachers, while developing technology solutions to enable greater scale of the BELL model.

“Education inequity is a national crisis that has long-term repercussions for our economy. It leaves underserved students at risk of being caught in a downward spiral of lower graduation rates, decreased lifelong earnings and generational poverty,” says BELL CEO Lauren Sanchez Gilbert, Ed.D. “Ballmer Group’s contribution allows us to further refine and replicate BELL’s holistic, data-driven summer programs to reach exponentially more underserved children living in urban, suburban and rural communities.”

Ballmer Group chose organizations that support individuals and families at key life stages, use evidence-based practices, track outcomes and utilize data for continuous improvement. “Many of our nation’s largest evidence-driven organizations are reaching less than 5 percent of their target population,” says Tonya Dressel, Executive Director of Ballmer Group. “In response, we are investing in national organizations like BELL with demonstrated impact that align with our interest in improving economic mobility for children and families.”

Students spend 80 percent of their time outside of the confines of the school day. Young people whose families cannot afford expensive summer and after school programs are at risk of suffering higher learning loss that is difficult to regain. Studies show that by fifth grade, summer learning loss can leave underserved children two and a half to three years behind their peers.

BELL’s academic and enrichment programs have been shown to reverse summer slide. Nationwide, more than 14,500 BELL students, known as scholars, experience an average of two month gains in reading and three month gains in math annually.

“We are grateful for Ballmer Group’s long-term investment in children and families across the nation,” said Dr. Gilbert. “They understand the challenges facing nonprofits and the importance of flexible funding to meet the complex needs of underserved communities. Their support will enable us to be more agile and responsive, and it will serve as an anchor to raise additional funds required to expand summer learning across the U.S.”

BELL transforms the life trajectories of scholars by empowering their circles of support, including parents and teachers. According to a 2016 survey, 92 percent of participating teachers say BELL helped them develop their professional skills, and the majority reported using BELL strategies in the classroom. Parents become more engaged as well, with 89 percent of those surveyed saying BELL programs made them more involved in their child’s education.

BELL supports program partners through all stages of their summer or after-school programs, including program design, curriculum development, professional development, measurement and technical assistance. BELL continuously applies and shares best practices and innovations as they are tested and refined in classrooms and other learning environments across the country.

About Ballmer Group:

Ballmer Group strengthens organizations and initiatives that increase economic mobility for children and families in the United States. Founders Steve and Connie Ballmer envision a country where the promise of the American Dream -that every child has an equal opportunity to build a better life -is within reach.

The above press release was originally published in 2017 and BellXcel remains grateful for Ballmer Group’s transformational investment.


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.”


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.”

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.”


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

Summer Collaboration Leads to Year-Round Success in San Antonio, TX

When 10-year-old Hattie Tillman, a rising 6th grader enrolled in YMCA of Greater San Antonio’s Power Scholar Academy (PSA), first embarked on her summer learning journey, she struggled with growth mindset. Today, when she gets an answer wrong, instead of shutting down like she used to, she says “It’s OK. I will get the next one right!” Once shy, she now beams with confidence. She enjoys helping other scholars. Her math and reading skills have always been solid, and through PSA, she’s bringing them to another level.

“Here, she’s taking concepts she learned in the school year, and applying them to real-life, instead of compartmentalizing them. She’s learning that they’re all interconnected,” says Veronica Mansfield, academic instructor in PSA and a certified teacher during the school year.

“She keeps pushing. Her confidence has improved. I’m proud of her,” said Hattie’s mother Karen Beard. “There’s a lot of negative pressure and violence in our neighborhood. She’s in a safe place to learn and grow.”

Hattie is one of many shining examples of scholars enrolled in Power Scholars Academy, a partnership between YMCA of Greater San Antonio and BellXcel. Scholars, are improving their academic skills, social and emotional learning, and self-confidence, preparing them for success in school and beyond. The evidence-based summer program was launched to support struggling local schools, and to address summer learning loss.

“Children in our community really need this program. They don’t have access to the same things other children do over the summer,” says Catherine Alvarado, Senior Director of Grant Administration and Program Innovation. “This is one of the poorest districts in San Antonio, and literacy is one of our biggest areas of need. This is my community. What pulls me in is knowing that we are helping children become more successful.”

The PSA program’s success can also be attributed to the close, collaborative relationship with the schools they serve. This relationship isn’t confined to the summer months. It is year-round. Two PSA program directors, Elisa Felix and Edna Castillo-Saucedo, are embedded in the schools during the school-year. “Being in the school enables me to closely work with teachers and counselors, and engage with parents, to identify and enroll students who need extra help into the summer program,” Felix says.

“We see the difference this level of engagement with schools is having compared to other sites,” said Alvarado. “We are a pillar of the school. We are a bridge for that continuum of learning with students from their community. When we speak to a financial supporter about the community needs, we speak to our impact on scholars, teachers, and on moving the entire school forward.”

The partnership with BellXcel has helped their program reach new heights of success, says Alvarado. “This is too big a problem for one agency to handle alone,” Alvarado says. “Without the support of BellXcel, we wouldn’t have the data we so desperately need to prove that the program is working. Funders want to see outcomes, more than just outputs. BellXcel helps us prove that what we are doing in the partnership is working.”

Meet Myima

Myima is a rising 7th grade scholar in her second summer enrolled in a BellXcel-powered summer program.


How did you feel initially about being enrolled in the program?

Honestly, I was a little scared at first because I didn’t know if I was going to know anybody and if I was going to make any friends.


Scholar Myima

So did you end up making new friends?

Yes! I made new friends, and also saw some familiar faces. It was nice to see my classmates over the summer too.

How has the program helped you with your academics?

I get mostly As and Bs in school. I think the program has helped me maintain my skills. If I wasn’t here, I’d probably be behind in school. It’s sort of re-teaching you what you did in school, so you still know what to do when you go back to school.


Was there a part of the program that you enjoyed the most?

One of my favorite parts was a literacy project when we had to finish the ending of a play. We had to make up the ending, and act it out. I liked that you got to just make stuff up, and choose what happens with the characters. It’s a different way of learning compared to the school year. It’s more creative.

Meet Geffrey

Geffrey is a rising 6th grade scholar in his first summer enrolled in a BellXcel-powered summer program.

Tell us about what you are learning in the program.

We learn a lot in fun activities and they teach us math and language arts. In math, I’m learning how to subtract, add, and multiply fractions and decimals.

When you go back to school do you feel you will have a head-start?

Yeah, I think because most people if they don’t go to summer school, they might lose their knowledge about some important stuff. I think I am better prepared for school. Some of my friends in 6th grade told me it’s a review of what they learned in school so I’m getting a head start. It’s making us review the materials.

What is the difference between this and school? 

I think it’s more fun learning and the teachers have more time to spend with you to teach you things you are having a hard time with. That’s the biggest difference – not feeling so pressured and rushed.

What else do you like about the program?

I can go up to the whiteboard more and write answers the questions. I can participate more.