BELL and Y-USA Launch
Power Scholars Academy™

In 2013, BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) and YMCA of the USA (Y-USA, or the Y) launched a pilot partnership to increase student achievement through a new summer learning initiative, the Power Scholars AcademyTM. The joint program is based on BELL’s evidence-based learning model, delivered in partnership with local Ys and schools throughout the country. Designed to address the achievement gap for disadvantaged youth, the pilot program was shown to boost students’ reading and math skills and increase their self-confidence, preparing them to learn and achieve in the next school year. This summer, BELL and Y-USA will expand the Power Scholars Academy™ to serve at least 1,000 scholars in grades K-8 in six states and Washington DC.

La Piana Consulting guided BELL and Y-USA through an intensive pilot, evaluation, and scaling business planning process to support the launch of this project.

In 2013, we led a business planning process focused on both explicit and implicit program elements. Explicitly, we helped the two groups design a program that adapted the BELL model to Y-USA’s strengths and capacity — adhering to BELL learning principles, but responsive to Y capacity. We worked with the two organizations to define lines of responsibility necessary for accountability and successful partnership. We also developed budgets and milestones for moving the project forward, helping the group answer questions about scope of program and speed of expansion along the way.

Implicitly, we fostered an expectation of teamwork and shared decision making that led to a deep trust between the lead staff from each organization. These were two groups that had never worked together before, so staff needed to become both familiar and comfortable with the culture of the other organization. Ultimately, trust was built through the insistent focus on mission success demonstrated by everyone involved and the planning team’s tenacity in hammering out decisions throughout the process.

The Power Scholars AcademyTM pilot launched in three cities in summer 2013: Hartford CT, Chicago IL, and Orlando FL. In 2014 La Piana Consulting led a follow-up effort to evaluate the success of the first-year pilot and develop a scale-up plan based on that learning. Today, the expanded program is underway in two returning cities (Orlando and Hartford) along with six additional cities: Montgomery AL, Denver CO, Washington DC, Clearwater FL, Minneapolis and St. Paul MN, and San Antonio TX. BELL and Y-USA staff involved in the effort say that the deep preparation of the business planning process gave them a pathway to follow — a pathway for carrying out the program and also for deepening the collaborative nature of their relationship.

“Working together for just over a year, BELL and Y-USA have forged an incredible partnership. Together, we’re dramatically boosting students’ reading and math scores, along with their belief in themselves,” said Jorge Perez, Vice President of Youth Development, Family Enrichment & Social Responsibility, YMCA of the USA.

This partnership grew out of the organizations’ shared goal of narrowing the achievement gap. Studies show that a lack of summer learning activities among disadvantaged youth cause a loss of skills that accumulates each year and widens the achievement gap. The lack of summer learning programming in low-income communities can cause students to fall two to three years behind their middle- and upper-income peers by the fifth grade. The Power Scholars AcademyTM is a full-day summer learning experience that takes place in schools, led by BELL-trained YMCA staff. The program combines small group, rigorous academic instruction with fun, hands-on enrichment activities, field trips, and service projects.

“Our partnership with the Y is creating new and exciting opportunities to connect more scholars with transformative summer learning experiences,” explained Tiffany Gueye, Ph.D., BELL’s Chief Executive Officer. “The Power Scholars Academy pairs BELL’s expertise in delivering high-quality programming and generating academic impact with the Y’s expertise in enrichment and community engagement. Amazing things happen for scholars and families when we leverage each other’s strengths and work together to narrow the achievement gap in our communities.”

Based on the proven track record of BELL and Y-USA, along with the sound design of the business plan and attention to detail around program responsibilities and decision-making within the partnership, a number of foundations have endorsed the project, providing financial as well as planning assistance. In 2015, the two organizations will accelerate program expansion, with a goal of serving more than 5,000 scholars in as many as 48 Ys by 2016.

[For a full press release, see: http://www.experiencebell.org/news/bell-ymca-usa-partner-increase-student-achievement]