EducationViews.org: An Interview with Dr. Tiffany Cooper Gueye
This interview appeared on EducationViews.org on December 11, 2012.
1. First of all, when did BELL get started and how are you currently involved?
BELL was formed 20 years ago by a group of Harvard Law School students, educators, and parents at a local public school. The idea was simple: too many students were struggling in school, and those students needed extra time to gain the skills needed to succeed. BELL's founders worked to transform after school hours into productive learning time. By providing small-group tutoring and mentorship, enrichment, and parent and community engagement, BELL's founders were helping students boost their academic performance, increase their self-confidence, and become more engaged learners.
I serve as BELL's CEO. I joined BELL back in 1998 as a tutor in BELL's summer learning program, became a Program Manager, then went on to serve as Director of Evaluation, Executive Director for New York, and Chief Operating Officer.
2. What exactly are you trying to accomplish?
We are trying to transform the academic achievements, self-confidence, and life opportunities of children living in low-income, urban communities. We believe that all children can excel, regardless of the zip code they live in, or the school they attend, and that they will excel when they're well-supported with adequate time, support, and resources. So, we work to expand learning time so that children who may be struggling in school are able to access the high quality learning experiences they need to fulfill their potential.
Ultimately, a big part of what we're trying to accomplish is to redefine when, where, and how learning happens. School is an important part of the education process, but it's not the only part. Summer time, after school time, even time on weekends and before school present opportunities for struggling students to focus, catch up to their peers, and get on track to graduate on time and become college- and career-ready at the end of high school. We're working to provide models of how schools and communities can work together to expand learning time and increase student success.
3. There is much talk about this " achievement gap "- is it due to poverty, culture, motivation, nutrition, or all of the above, and how are you addressing it?
The achievement gap is caused by a range of factors - from parent engagement and support to the availability of learning materials in the home to expectations among teachers to quality and quantity of learning time to nutrition and health. The list goes on and on. And it varies across students, schools, and communities. We focus on the lever of time. By expanding learning time in a high quality way - small group instruction, research-based curricula, hands-on projects, engaging enrichment courses, etc - we're providing "scholars" with learning experiences that they otherwise would lack.
And, we're providing learning experiences that students in wealthier neighborhoods and towns are already getting. That's the main focus for BELL programs. But we go further - our programs are designed to make it easier for parents to be a part of their child's education. They incorporate high expectations and mentorship to reinforce motivation. And all BELL programs incorporate nutrition (snacks and/or dinner after school, breakfast and lunch in the summer) because hungry students aren't going to be as focused on learning as well-fed students.
4. I continually encounter articles, and research about the problems with writing. How does BELL address the enhancement of writing skills?
Writing is an essential skill, and one that is prioritized in the Common Core. In BELL programs, scholars engage in a wide range of writing activities. In younger grades - K-3 - scholars focus more on "word work" - understanding and properly using grammar and vocabulary and modeling fluency and flow. Older scholars engage in creative writing, narration, critical analysis. Writing extends into math and enrichment courses as well - it's not confined to "literacy time." For example, they'll write out how they came to solve a math problem, or they'll describe a science experiment, or write a play and then perform it.
5. Let's talk family involvement, or perhaps parent involvement - what is your position, and how do you go about ensuring parental or parent involvement?
Parent involvement is one of the most important factors in student success - even more important than income level. It's a pillar of BELL's approach - we prioritize a wide range of activities to get parents involved as key participants in their child's education. We hold orientations to describe the goals of BELL's program; we set expectations for the amount of time parents spend reading to or with their children (and we provide a reading log that we collect weekly); we host "Bring Your Parent to School" days so that teachers can help parents understand their child's strengths, needs, and progress; we invite participation in field trips, service projects, and events; and we share information and encouragement often. The last point shouldn't be overlooked. We target struggling students - and for a lot of BELL parents, when the phone rings and it's the school calling, it's usually not good news. With BELL, it's the opposite - we call parents and talk to them at daily pick-up time and go out of our way to let them know how well their child is doing, how helpful or thoughtful their child was that day, and how successful they are with their work. Parents sometimes need encouragement just like scholars do!
6. It seems that I also continually hear about students with special needs, exceptionalities and the like. Do you work with children who may be autistic, or have intellectual disabilities?
Generally, BELL is not equipped to work with students who have intellectual disabilities or autism - they are better served by programs and staff with different expertise. We do work with children who have learning disabilities, social and emotional challenges, or mild autism - and we do so by providing individualized support and differentiating instruction. We cluster students based on their skills - not based on how old they are or what grade they're in. We then help teachers understand exactly what skills students need, and provide the best tools to help students learn them.
7. What about technology and computers? Are they integrated into your programs?
BELL does integrate technology-based learning into its programs. In many BELL sites, we implement a blended learning approach such that scholars participate in both classroom-based instruction and computer-based learning. Research suggests that such a blended approach is highly effective given that students have different learning styles and no single approach fits everyone.
For example, scholars might learn vocabulary for 30 minutes, and then go into the computer lab and play word games for 30 minutes where they match up words with the correct image, definition, or animation. Technology and computers also play a big role in many of our enrichment courses. This past summer, for example, scholars in some schools used digital music editing software to create their own music, while others created digital comics about positive social values, while others programmed their own robots!
8. How do you define "high risk" and how are they different from "at risk"?
For BELL, "high risk" pertains to students who are very far behind grade level. For example, we administer standardized diagnostic tests at the start of each BELL program - a student who is two or more grade levels behind their peers is considered "high risk." For such students, we recognize that one single dosage of after school tutoring or summer learning is not going to be sufficient in and of itself to completely eliminate their achievement gap, and that it may take two or three years to make up so much ground. The small classroom ratio of BELL programs is particularly helpful for high risk students as it enables them to really focus on making up ground with our staff. "At-risk" for us refers to scholars who are not as far behind - scholars who are "on the bubble," so to speak, and these students often experience significant positive growth in a single BELL program.
9. How do you define success and who does your follow up and what is its nature?
BELL defines success primarily in terms of scholar success. We expect scholars in BELL programs to demonstrate increased academic performance, based on test scores and other metrics, and increased self-confidence, based on teacher and parent surveys. This past summer, for example, scholars boosted their percentile rank scores in literacy and math on post-program standardized tests by 9%. They gained approximately six months' grade-equivalent skills in BELL Summer - that's about a half of an entire grade level. Every program, BELL evaluates scholar success using tests, quizzes, and surveys. Independent evaluators have also studied BELL's impact and found that our programs have a significant, positive impact on scholar achievement and parent involvement.
We also define success in other ways - in terms of scholars served, scholar attendance, communities served, and financial health. These are certainly important metrics for ourselves, for school partners, and for donors. We track these metrics and a myriad of other success metrics internally on an ongoing basis.
10. What have I neglected to ask?
One thing I'd add is a little about how we go about pursuing our mission. We form partnerships with schools and school districts and combine public and private resources to expand learning time. Generally speaking, the resources needed to expand learning time in a high quality way exist in every community, and we work to mobilize those resources and channel them to increase student success. Schools set criteria for student participation (i.e., test scores, grades, etc), identify great teachers, provide facilities, and cover a portion of program costs, while BELL enrolls students, hires and trains teachers, recruits teachers assistants and enrichment instructors, manages service delivery, measures success, and raises philanthropic funding to pair with school funding.
Main point: children benefit when schools and communities work together. Learning time is enriched and expanded by bringing the community into the classroom, and the classroom into the community.
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