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The Augusta Chronicle: If you want better education, you'll like the sound of this BELL.

Swimming upstream? So what?
If you want better education, you'll like the sound of this BELL

By Augusta Chronicle Editorial Staff
Monday, July 19, 2010

At a time when state budgets have forced cutbacks in public education across the country, including Augusta, at least one program here is swimming against the tide.

BELL - Building Educated Leaders for Life - is a national after-school and summer reading and math tutoring program for elementary and middle-school students designed to "dramatically increase the academic achievements, self-esteem and life opportunities of children living in low-income, urban communities."

It started in Boston in 1992, but came to Augusta only last February through federal Title I money, national BELL funding and a grant from the Community Foundation of the CSRA, as well as other donations.

The program uses certified teachers and teacher's assistants for several hours after school three days a week, and more than six hours a day Monday-Friday during the summer.

The program is popular and spreading because it puts a premium on measurable outcomes. Kids are tested beforehand, and improvements are charted. Of those who scored most poorly in the initial test earlier this year at the 16 schools where BELL was offered here, 62 percent improved their reading proficiency and 67 did better in math.

What BELL may not be able to measure is the difference it makes in children's hearts. Some who might not have valued education before - or themselves, for that matter - may now be headed for great things. Who knows?

The point is, they're being given the opportunity and shown the way.

Every one of us can remember a teacher who made a pivotal change in our lives. This program no doubt does that.

It is, of course, a Band-Aid on an education system that, nationally, needs something akin to major surgery. Programs such as BELL, which teach basic math and reading skills - albeit in innovative ways - shouldn't be necessary. This is the job of the schools and parents.

Yet, there it is, and BELL has stepped in - more like jumped in, really. Considering that an already challenged educational system is cutting back, and considering how much help kids need, such programs are truly swimming upstream.

So what? Someone's got to do it.

It's called leadership.