Inspiring middle schoolers to thrive

On Aug. 11, 1989, David Miller witnessed the shooting of his friend, Donald Vincent Bentley, on the streets of his native Baltimore. That experience ignited a passion for helping young people of color navigate the difficulties they face growing up in America today.

One product of that passion was the creation of a character-development curricula aimed at middle-school students of color, known as Dare To Be King and Dare To Be Queen (DTBK/Q).


My organization, BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life has been using David's curriculum in our summer learning programs in Baltimore and elsewhere since 2007 because it confronts head-on the challenges that many of our students — whom we call "scholars" — face in their schools and communities: managing anger, making good decisions, developing resiliency and overcoming distractions to succeed in school and in life.

Since then, BELL has refined a model that gives pride of place to the unique needs of kids in middle school, which is often the low point of a student's academic career. Academic content gets tougher and tougher — especially for students who were struggling in elementary school – even as kids confront the intersections of puberty, school transitions and changing relationships with friends and family members.

What's more, the vast majority of BELL scholars come from socio-economically disadvantaged communities with violent crime, drug usage, teen pregnancy, single-family homes and high drop-out rates — all of which serve to exacerbate the challenges of being a teenager.

Our partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools has focused on serving middle school scholars who are at risk of being retained in grade. Upon completing BELL Summer and demonstrating improved academic skills, these scholars could be recommended for promotion.

Our summer learning programs begin Monday. We hired staff with an eye toward their ability to deliver the DTBK/Q curriculum along with our own intensive program, lead scholars and serve as exemplary role models. And we intend to hold scholars to high expectations.

We have found many benefits to grouping scholars by gender. This helps middle school scholars focus by reducing distractions and creating a sense of community in which males and females feel comfortable raising their hands, opening up and discussing issues that are important to them and their communities. The result is better support not only for character and leadership development, but for academic growth.

Within groups of "Kings" and "Queens," our staff focuses tightly on stereotypes about masculinity and femininity, the impact of the presence (or absence) of role models, dealing with peer pressure and interacting with members of the opposite gender. Our DTBK/Q facilitators focus on building trust, character and skills that encourage emotional healing and better decision-making.

As a result, our summer programs often provide scholars with their first experience of a structured and fully supportive learning environment. It also may be the first time they've grown close to positive role models who establish high expectations and build an emotional connection.

BELL's model also prizes empowering scholars to make decisions. Teachers routinely ask scholars for feedback at the end of each instructional block to help them make the content more digestible and interesting. Scholars often select projects for a particular topic and choose peer leaders. They also are given options of enrichment courses, and time is carved out for special projects that they may want to pursue.

The results from that first summer, and from every summer since, suggest that our approach is working for middle school students in Baltimore. Last summer assessment data from adaptive assessments built to measure progress against Common Core standards showed that Baltimore sixth graders who participated in our programs started the summer reading and doing math at a fourth grade level. They made up much of that ground — about 25 percent of it — over our five-week program.

Pairing our instructional model with the elements of David Miller's curriculum represents an ambitious set of experiences to deliver in a summer program, but we must find ways to bring these experiences to more scholars and to sustain their progress so that their impact grows over time. These are the experiences that at-risk Baltimore teens need, year after year, to close achievement gaps and succeed in college and career. And, as David learned all too early in life, many of these lessons can come into play far beyond school walls.

Nadia Clarke is BELL Executive Director for the Mid-Atlantic Region and leads BELL's work in Baltimore; her email is