Stephanie Bell-Rose: Parenting for success

Stephanie Bell-Rose: Parenting for success

Karin Chenoweth

When Stephanie Bell-Rose went to Radcliffe College, she says, “I was so scared I studied incessantly.”

A graduate of New York Catholic schools in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and Roosevelt, Long Island, she was unused to doing original research.

“We looked at textbooks, we didn’t write papers,” she says of her prior schooling. “I knew I’d have to learn totally new rules of the game.”

But Bell-Rose was a good student and mastered her new environment, earning straight “A’s that first year and graduating in 1979. She then went on to attend Harvard Law School and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. She spent years as a corporate lawyer in one of New Jersey’s blue-stocking law firms before joining the Mellon Foundation as foundation counsel and a program officer.

Despite these accomplishments, she says, “But for affirmative admissions practices, I would not have gone” to Radcliffe, which she describes as a “defining experience in terms exposing me to opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

These experiences are instrumental in motivating Bell-Rose’s current work. The attacks on affirmative action in California, Texas, and elsewhere have made it even more important, she says, to make sure that African American students are prepared to compete for spots in the highly selective colleges because, “access to those kinds of institutions can be very positive to the students who go.” She wants to make sure that that path stays open for students who are “coming behind me.”

Working at the Mellon Foundation, Bell-Rose began to explore ways to support programs that would help African American students become more competitive. This fit in with the foundation’s general work. As the tenth largest foundation in the country, with an endowment of around $3.3 billion and an annual budget of around $120 million, it has worked with many highly selective colleges and universities on a variety of projects — including supporting African American and other minority scholars.

The president of the Mellon Foundation, Dr. William G. Bowen, just coauthored a book with former president of Harvard, Dr. Derek Bok, on the consequences of race-sensitive admissions at highly selective colleges and universities, titled The Shape of the River.

But what Bell-Rose found was: “It wouldn’t be possible to develop programs because we didn’t have the knowledge base.”

Until now, very few people have studied the educational experiences of African American high achievers. That’s how she stepped into the world of educational research, which is relatively untrodden ground for her.

“It’s atypical for a program officer to be involved in research,” she says.

But with research help from the Urban Institute and the muscle of the Mellon Foundation, Bell-Rose was able to examine the vast database of The College Board, which surveys all of the million or so students who take the SAT every year. She believes what she has uncovered has profound implications not only for higher education and secondary education, but also for African American parents.

“Parents need to understand it can make a difference whether their children are placed in the most challenging classes,” she says, offering, as examples, math sequences that should include calculus and English sequences that should include honors English.

Parents also play a key role in encouraging the mastery of more effective study skills and in students’ participating in enriching extracurricular activities such as honor society and community volunteering, she says.

“Don’t just assume any activity is a good activity. If it’s possible, encourage kids to do things that will enrich their academic development,” says Bell-Rose.

These are lessons Bell-Rose understands first-hand from her own experiences as both a daughter and a parent.

Her mother’s mission, she says, was that all of her four children go to and complete college. Bell had been the first in her family of origin to attend college, but had finished only two years of Brooklyn College before she left to raise her own children. Bell-Rose’s father, who was also a first generation college student, went to St. John’s University on the GI Bill after serving in the Korean War. Widowed at the age of 34, Bell-Rose’s mother imbued her children with the idea that they could do anything, and they all successfully completed college.

Now a parent herself, Bell-Rose has three sons–ages 1, 11, and 14–with the two oldest enrolled in public schools in New Rochelle, N.Y. — a diverse, both ethnically and economically, and fairly highly regarded school system. It is, in fact, the kind of school system — on the fringes of urban centers — where most African American high scorers attend. But even there, Bell-Rose has had to be actively involved in making sure her children are placed in the most academically challenging classes.

She and Linda Darling-Hammond — who is now a professor at Stanford University, but was formerly at Teachers College at Columbia University– were school mothers together. They both have had to work closely with the schools to make sure their children were given the best of academic opportunities. Darling-Hammond’s research indicates that high achieving kids — even those who were in gifted and talented classes in elementary school’s often are tracked out of courses beginning in seventh grade. She and BellRose saw that first-hand.

“That was our experience together in New Rochelle…. It’s a dirty little secret of elementary and secondary education,” says Darling-Hammond.

Insisting that African American parents be actively engaged in ensuring that their children have access to rigorous academic work “is not a new message,” according to Bell-Rose.

“These are the things that Black folk have always done naturally,” she says.

The tradition of valuing academic achievement is one that goes back a long time among African Americans, she says, but is often forgotten in the education discussions that have consumed policymakers.

“We forget the fact that it was the leadership of African Americans that opened the way to higher education for all minorities.”

However, Bell-Rose says, many African American parents “seem to be less knowledgeable in dealing with schools and teachers. Many parents are not active partners.”

Bell-Rose hopes her study will be followed up by other researchers, but she herself is returning to the world of developing programs.

“I would like to develop a program that is consequential that has as its focus preparing African American kids to compete for admission to higher education,” she says.

Her vision cuts across the educational spectrum, from primary and secondary schools to higher education institutions and parent groups. Although she has not fully defined what such a program will be, she says, “my commitment is such that this needs to go forward. It is of paramount importance to me.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group