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Charlotte Observer: Schools ring BELL for summer achievement

By Ann Doss Helms | ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

CHARLOTTE - July 17, 2012 - When the mission is turning at-risk students into successful graduates, there's no time to lose.

That's the idea behind the summer programs of Project LIFT, a $55 million quest to push nine struggling west Charlotte schools into the ranks of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's top performers.

The five-year public-private project officially starts in the 2012-13 school year. But about 1,700 students - almost one in four who will attend in August - are writing the prologue by spending six weeks of summer working on reading, math and science skills.

"When I go to fifth grade, I won't be afraid of the work," said 10-year-old Ti'Montrey Smith, a student at Allenbrook Elementary. "I'll say, ‘Oh, yeah, I got this.' "

Ti'Montrey is enrolled in BELL, or Building Educated Learners for Life, a Massachusetts-based summer academic program that's serving almost 1,100 of the Project LIFT students. It offers reading and math lessons shaped by analysis of each student's test results, mixed with hands-on science, field trips and physical activity.

"We often say to our scholars, ‘You work hard and you play hard,' " says Sherrinne Reece, director of Charlotte's BELL programs.

A new way to pay

Summer school is hardly new. But efforts like LIFT and BELL are tapping private money to bolster public programs and give more disadvantaged kids a summer boost.

Project LIFT (for Leadership and Investment for Transformation) has raised $55 million from local foundations and businesses to be spent over the next five years supporting West Charlotte High and eight schools that feed into it. A preliminary plan calls for spending more than $16 million, almost one-third of the budget, on efforts to give the students more time in school.

BELL, created 20 years ago by Harvard University Law School students who had been tutoring children at a nearby public school, now gets support from such corporate partners as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt educational publishers and retail giants Walmart and Target.

LIFT and BELL split the cost of the new summer programs, which Reece says is about $1,000 per student. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools provides busing, meals and buildings.

Project LIFT is also working with Freedom Schools, a national Children's Defense Fund program with a Charlotte office. But BELL is the largest program, and serves the students with the greatest need for academic help, says Denise Watts, the zone superintendent in charge of the LIFT schools.

Early impression

Watts learned about BELL when then-Superintendent Peter Gorman tapped her to lead Spaugh Middle, a high-poverty school where test scores were among the district's weakest. After researching what could help her kids, she used federal money to bring BELL to Charlotte in 2009, with a six-week summer program for 60 rising sixth-graders. It was the first BELL program in North Carolina.

Students started their summer by taking the national Stanford Achievement tests in reading and math. When they retook the tests at the end of program, they showed average gains of nine months in reading and 32 months in math, Watts says.

It's not clear how that affected performance during the school year; about half of Spaugh's sixth-graders fell short of grade level on state exams that year. But Watts says she's sure the BELL kids benefited.

"Our sixth-grade students that year were the best behaved, referred to each other as scholars, and had a better transition into middle school," she said. "I attribute that to the experience they had in the BELL program that summer."

Work and play

At Allenbrook this summer, teachers looked at the first round of test results to see what kind of help each child needs. In reading, for instance, some are still working on matching letters with the sounds they make, while others need to boost their reading comprehension and vocabulary. BELL hires certified teachers, most of whom will continue to work with the students during the school year.

Mornings are like regular school, with individual and group reading, writing exercises and math lessons. "But we present it in a fun way," Reece says.

In the afternoon, the kids get physical, with clubs such as kickboxing, dance and basketball. There are also science lessons, but they feel more like camp than school.

On a recent day, the third-graders were learning the science of magic. They built magic wands from tubes of construction paper, then used clay to weight one end so they could appear to defy gravity by balancing it horizontally on one finger.

Fifth-graders were investigating a "crime scene" using fingerprints and blood spatters. Students used droppers to drip blood (actually corn starch and food coloring) from different heights and measure the drops.

Fridays also bring field trips to museums, plays and such educational sites as the Duke Energy Explorium, a lakeside center with lessons on electricity and nature.

Tracking results

In 2006, the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute published a study of about 1,000 children who applied for BELL programs in Boston and New York the summer before. The students were randomly assigned to participate or not. The students who took the program gained about one month more on reading skills than the other group, "a modest yet notable increase in reading skills for a six-week program," the report concludes. Math skills weren't studied.

BELL has now launched another random-assignment study that will cover reading, math and follow-up on school performance, with publication aimed for 2013. That study will include additional sites, but not Charlotte.

Watts said Project LIFT will track the local students' progress during the school year to try to gauge academic benefits.

Kim Smith, an Allenbrook teacher who's working with the BELL program, says it provides far more support and structure than other summer schools she has worked with. At Cornelius Elementary, she said, the school got support from a local Rotary Club to provide a four-week program, but when it came to planning lessons, "I was on my own." BELL provides testing, material, science kits and reward systems to motivate the students.

"It's definitely kicked it up about ten notches from what I have done in the past," Smith said.


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