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Bell honored for
education career


By DEBRA DeANGELO
Express editor
Marlene Bell says she is retired, but she not only seems busier than ever, she is gathering accolades for a lifetime of devotion to education reform.
Bell, who lives in rural Winters with her husband, Bob, was honored on Saturday March 14 at the Equity Summit held at UC Davis. She was presented with the Lifetime Award for Embodying Equity and Diversity. Her award was among several given out at the event, entitled, “Radical Healing in Times of Trauma.”
“The award was a huge surprise and a huge honor,” says Bell, who notes that she’s been doing this work for a long time — 42 years total — and still hasn’t stopped, even though she insists she is almost 70 years old.
She says she isn’t resting on these lifetime laurels, and says she’s continuing to work on education reform with Jesse Ortiz, the Yolo County Superintendent of Schools, on a task force to create greater success for African American students in Yolo County.
Retirement, says Bell, sounds like leisure, which she would enjoy, but she’s just too busy.
People that retire want to travel and read books — I want to do the same thing, but I keep getting sidetracked with things that need attention. If I can be supportive in some capacity, I’m willing to do that.”
This isn’t the first time in Bell’s career that her peers have taken note of her achievements. She also received a Distinguished Alumni award from the School of Education at UC Davis in 2009.
A graduate of UC Davis with a degree in history, Bell taught school in Davis for 27 years at various campuses, including Willett Elementary, North Davis Elementary, Pioneer Elementary, and “17 years in kindergarten raising good students and good parents for students,” she says with a smile.
She served as the assistant executive director for the California Teachers Association, working with Region 2, which served 30 of California’s 58 counties, stretching from the Oregon border to the Los Angeles county line — about 73,000 square miles, representing 65,000 teachers and educators.
Bell retired from the teaching in 1999, when she went to work for the CTA, from which she retired in 2009. Her retirement was short-lived. Two weeks after she retired, she started directing a program called the Algebra Success Academy. In the beginning, it was a two-person shop, with Bell handling the business end of the program while the lead teacher wrote the curriculum. The program ultimately spread statewide, implemented in a variety of towns from Paradise to Chula Vista.
“The Algebra Success Academy is all about providing equity, access and opportunity for children in grades 2-8 in algebra,” explains Bell. “In other words, we bring the subject matter to students at the concrete level before we ask them to memorize formulas and equations without meaning. They live the algebra experience and children at the 3rd grade level are capable of 9th grade algebra because they so understand what they’re doing.”
She explains that some of her work in education equity and social justice came from her work with the Algebra Success Academy.
“We would examine commonly used date that would reflect success for students, and disaggregate the data to insure that success is achieved for all groups of children,” says Bell. “Where social justice comes in on that is that for children of color, success is not equating to that which is achieved by white and Asian students.”
Social change was facilitated, she says, by “taking a look at the data that reflects overall success, disaggregate it, and make sure that success is equal for all groups.” Once the data is disaggregated, the achievement gap can be considered to find out what the other components are that affect the data.
Bell was pleased that Wendy Gallimore, who brought her into the Algebra Success Program, introduced her at the Equity Summit and presented her award.
Bell retired from the Algebra Success Academy in 2013, but even so — she still isn’t totally relaxing just yet. However, this time, it’s politics that have her attention.
“You never retire completely. I am now the vice chair of the Yolo County Democratic Party, and I am the Assembly District 4 representative to the Democratic State Central Committee.”
She notes that schools and politics aren’t unrelated.
“Schools are politics. Every dime we get is based on what happens in the political arena.”
With her recent Equity Summit honor, Bell admits, “It was a bit overwhelming,” because a lifetime achievement award sounds, on one had, like the end of a life, but on the other, in this case, honors “the massive amounts of work done to create social change and provide equity with our students and the community.”
As an example, she mentions the “My Brother’s Keeper” program introduced by President Barack Obama, which considers educational issues amongst African American students, such as statistics showing that they are disproportionately overrepresented in the suspension rate of preschoolers.
“That practice of suspension and expulsion continues straight through school in some communities,” Bell points out, emphasizing that suspended and expelled students not only fall farther behind, but are at greater risk for getting into trouble. “When children are in the classroom, they’re learning. When they are suspended and expelled, they are in a pipeline to the juvenile justice system.”
Bell adds that more African Americans funneling into the juvenile justice system as a result of being suspended and expelled from school contributes to an eventual gap in wealth as a result of their lack of education. Bell is an advocate for “restorative justice,” which means students go through a resolution process rather than being suspended or expelled.
Another of Bell’s positions included serving as a national trainer for Graymill, Inc, which produced “Generating Expectations for Student Achievement,” a program that examined teacher interactions with students aimed at producing equity in achievement. She explains that a teacher’s attitudes about race can affect how they teach.
“If you expect great answers from some students and minimal from others, the kinds of questions you ask those two students is dramatically different.”
Going easier on students a teacher may consciously or subconsciously expect to be unable to answer tougher questions reinforces the divide between white/Asian student achievement and that of African American students, she says.
“These are subtle behaviors we all have as we interact in society. As we recognize what those behaviors are, we can make change.”
She adds that these types of “disparate interactions” aren’t isolated to schools. They happen within the community as well. Tension between African American drivers and law enforcement is a prime example.
Bell says her experience and insight served her well during her tenure with the CTA, as she worked with policymakers, and helped shape policy “so it reflects need rather than somebody’s notion of need.” She mentions the trend in education reform to “make testing the ultimate measurement of an education system.”
“Kids and teachers lost badly,” she says, because test isn’t a true measure of success when the curriculum and school environments are complex, and life outside school is vastly different amongst students. Some may have stable homes while others may be homeless or not be getting enough food or sleep.
“A test is designed to include only part of what a student learns and that measures one moment in time. Factors that influence the test result happen outside the classroom as much as inside the classroom.
“If you don’t come to school with breakfast and your parents are fighting all night long, if the child had no dinner, these are factors that influence learning.”
It’s almost a shame that Bell has retired, because her wealth of knowledge about teaching, learning and testing, is as relevant as ever. The Express editor noted that she might consider spending some of her “retirement” time gathering her thoughts into a book to inspire current and future educators.
Bell grew up in Oakland, and also lived in Victoria, British Columbia and Danville. Her husband is a retired Golden 1 Credit Union assistant vice president and regional manager, who now enjoys farming walnuts and playing bass. They have three children, Sharaine Bell of San Fransico, Maurice Bell, who lives in Texas, and Lisa Matty, who lives in Nebraska.