In what could only be described as fate, one firm has successfully managed to capitalize on the controversial name to become an important player in the high-stakes, test preparation market. "Bell Curves," founded by Akil Bello, is a proud, Black-owned firm that is determined to help individuals of all races, achieve their God-given potential from kindergarten through graduate school.
Akil Bello, a "Master Educational Strategist" graciously shares his unique insights, witty banter and the real reason why he gave his company that name in this extensive interview.
A. While we considered a few other names given our family history and profession, the company almost had to be named "Bell Curves." My paternal grandparents' last name is "Bell" so it was a great piece of connection to history and the present (our name). Being Black men in test prep, we were, of course, aware of the book and there is a great implicit "thumbing of the nose" at the authors for me.
The final connection is to statistical distribution that "saved many butts" in many classes (long live grading on a bell curve). So there were any reasons that the name would just be amazing. Over the years, I've gotten lots of reactions from "insulted" to "impressed" by the name.
The most visceral reaction I know of came recently when at a diversity conference where my staff (who are white) and I had a table, was "lectured" on why the name was "bad" and their lack of awareness of the book. I still wonder if that person knew that the company was Black-owned and what the reaction would have been then? For the most part, I think people, get the relevance and connections while still appreciating the name.
Q2. I understand that you were a "Master Tutor" with some of the major firms in the test-prep business. What finally led you to start your own firm?
A. I started my own company because I thought being an entrepreneur would give me the freedom and stability that part-time tutoring didn't. It also felt like the more "grown up" thing to do. I could not envision "grown up Akil" working everyday from 3 - 10pm running from house to house tutoring, while his wife had to manage the children alone every evening after a long day of work.
Q3. What exactly is "test prep" and how do you teach this?
A. There is a short answer and a 1130 word blog post. I'll give the short answer here and let those who are really curious, check out our blog by clicking here.
One way to think of it is through "sports coaching." Test prep is coaching. Our job is to take the player and make him/her use the talents he/she has in the best way possible. A great coach is not a miracle worker, but rather a master strategist helping the player maximize his abilities. And as in all things related to coaching, there are some who are good (like Doc Rivers), and there are some who aren't (hello Isiah Thomas).
In either case, the coach is always impacted, and maybe limited, by the skills and "coachability" of the players he has. No matter how many shooting coaches Shaq had, he never learned to shoot a respectable free throw percentage. Test prep is the same thing; the knowledge and "coachability" of the player will play almost as big a role in how a student does. Test prep is about addressing as many challenges as possible.
Many students who have been playing basketball on "kiddie rims" and with "kiddie basketballs" are shocked when they get to a standardized test which requires them to play on a "real rim" with a "real ball." So, when you ask what is "test prep," I'd say it's teaching the knowledge necessary to understand how to reach correct answers, developing the habits to perform optimally in the testing environment, and learning the strategies to take advantage of the multiple choice format.
A. Bell Curves is the largest, minority-owned test prep company in the known universe. We are a collection of smart, dedicated people who love to argue about the "meaning" of the word "is" and poke fun at pineapples with sleeves (google it please!). We've spent years learning not only how standardized tests work but also how best to help students master them and navigate the educational landscape from kindergarten to graduate school.
Using Bell Curves brings you all the knowledge of a college professor with the personality and fun of your favorite "play cousin." Unlike most test prep companies who simply "brag" about the score their tutors get, we like to "brag" about the connections our tutors make and the schools our students get into. We work with a vast array of schools, non-profit organizations, and students to help them understand the application process and master the admission test and we do it at a better value than most other companies.
Q5. How early should students start test prep as it relates to the SHSAT and the SAT?
A. No matter what admission test you are taking, preparation for it should begin about 18-24 months before you want to start the new school. So, if you want to go to Brooklyn Tech in the fall of 2015 (readers from other states, insert your state's highly-ranked school here) you start preparing in the fall of 2013. Let's look at the admissions cycle for Brooklyn Tech:
**September 2015 -- Start school
**October 2014 ---Take the SHSAT (this is the only opportunity for most 8th graders to take the test for admission in 9th grade)
**May - October 2014 -- Prepare for the SHSAT
This pattern holds true for almost every transition point in the K - grad school pipeline. Every time you are changing school type or level, you want to apply to take tests for your new school about a year in advance. You'll want to have taken any required tests before you submit your application; thus you have to start preparing 18 months or more ahead of time.
The application cycle for a sophomore applying to Georgetown College should look something like this:
**September 2015 -- Start school in "Chocolate City!"
**December 2014 -- Application with its multiple essays should be in the mail
**October 2014 -- Complete 2nd and final SAT exam
**Summer 2014 -- Prep for 2nd SAT, begin college essays, and do internships
**June 2014 -- Take SAT subject tests
**May 2014 -- Take AP exams
**March 2014 -- Take first SAT
**Jan - March 2014 -- prepare for first SAT
**December 2013 -- Take SAT subject tests
**October 2013 -- Take PSAT (qualifier for National Merit and National Achievement Scholarships)
Q6. You come from a family of educators. What are some key things that parents and students should be doing as it relates to test prep in addition to addressing the achievement gap between African-Americans and other ethnic groups?
A. The parent has to make sure they assume the responsibility for their child's future. Schools tend to focus on the child's "present." The school's "job" is to get the child "out of that school," the parent's job is to get the child "ready for life" so the objectives are very different.
Typically, a middle school is preparing the child for high school, NOT for college or career; so the objective of a middle school is to teach those things that help a student get out of middle school and MAYBE, get into high school. A parent has to keep focused on the long term by helping students learn to "connect" what's done in school to real life (for example, if a child learns addition, let the child add up the groceries). Parents can help their children develop their interests. If you have a child who likes comic books, encourage him to read them and learn new vocabulary or encourage them to draw their own.
There are lots of ways for parents to provide "test prep" but if a child is years before they are going to take a test, then it's less about specific tests, and more about building solid academic skills that can be translated into many different settings. Everything from nightly reading to visits to museums to reading the paper and discussing stories help.
Q7. Is there anything else that you would like to share?
A. Bell Curves loves coming out and talking in the community, at college fairs, at local colleges and high schools. If you'd like to have one of our experts come speak to your community group or school AND/OR if you are in need of test preparation, give us a buzz at 877-223-3828 or by visiting our website: www.bellcurves.com.
CARING IS SHARING. Help this article go VIRAL by sharing it with others in your network. CLICK on the buttons below. SHARE your comments. Subscribe to my EMAIL list by clicking here.