Explaining the impact that attorney and civic volunteer Valerie Bell has had on education in St. Louis can be a little complicated.
But her husband, Kelvin Westbrook, a successful business consultant and board chair of BJC HealthCare, has a helpful analogy. The St. Louis Public School District is like an elephant, he said, and there are various people who want to help move this elephant in the right direction by donating funds. In the past, some were pushing at the trunk and others at the legs.
“The elephant, consequently, didn’t move at all,” Westbrook said.
When Bell became the board chair of the St. Louis Public School Foundation eight years ago, she did some research, listened to the school district community, and decided to completely upend how the foundation – which is in charge of managing donations to the district – had been operating. What Bell did was lead the foundation in coming up with four main areas where funders could plug in, essentially making sure that people were all pushing in the same direction.
“In the past, we would listen to what funders wanted to see happen,” said Jane Donahue, president of the foundation. “Val was reversing that paradigm and making sure we were responding to what was most needed by students.”
Bell ensured that educators, the superintendent and parents had a voice in shaping the four main areas that the foundation would focus on, Donahue said.
“We picked these four areas because we knew they would mean a lot to the community: early childhood education, college and career readiness, great school leaders and addressing student well-being,” Donahue said.
Under Bell’s leadership, the foundation has helped to expand the district’s early childhood education program so now more than 2,100 children have access to quality preschools, she said. The foundation had made sure that there are college counselors and ACT prep classes for all SLPS high-school students.
“She’s helped us make sure that we can attract the best possible principals and support their innovative ideas,” Donahue said, “and to make sure we are connecting our families to the health resources they need. So now we have mental health therapists and embedded school nurses. All of this is her vision and creation. She has driven and inspired our board to wake up every day, thinking about how we can do more for students in the St. Louis Public Schools.”
Because of her transformative work with the SLPS Foundation and many other educational initiatives, Bell is receiving the Stellar Performer in Education Award at the 32nd Annual Salute to Excellence in Education Gala, held at the America’s Center on Saturday, Sept. 21.
“Valerie Bell has been a lightning rod for change in the St. Louis community,” said Kelvin Adams, SLPS superintendent. “I am ecstatic that she’s receiving this award. It’s an award that speaks to the notion that people who have resources can and should give back, and she’s done that. She’s really made a difference in terms of revisioning the foundation and motivating persons in this community to care greatly about what happens in the St. Louis Public School District. But more importantly, to care greatly about the kids in the City of St. Louis.”
The “Val” that people know today is the same one that Westbrook met at Harvard Law School almost 40 years ago, he said. Her number one preoccupation in life, outside of family, has always been educational equity.
“Education is so transformative on every conceivable level you can think about,” Bell said.
That passion is one of the things that Westbrook has always admired about her. “She cares about people who are less privileged and who are born into situations through no fault of their own,” he said, “and who deserve an opportunity to be the best they can be.”
And for the past 25 years, Bell has volunteered her time to finding ways to bridge the educational gap.
“As a graduate of Princeton, as a graduate of Harvard Law School, as a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, she could do any number of things,” Westbrook said. “She chooses to do this. It puts her in a unique position to speak truth, to not pull any punches. Val is just an authentic person when it comes to these issues. There’s no hidden agenda.”
Bell stepped down as board chair of the foundation on July 1, but will remain a board member. She is currently excited about serving on the board for the National Network of Schools in Partnership. There, she has been exploring ways for top-tier private academic institutions and public schools across the country to share resources and bolster the entire educational opportunity for everyone. In St. Louis, she has helped to partner John Burroughs and the St. Louis Public Schools through an ongoing initiative called the Equity Exchange.
More than 20 years ago, Westbrook and Bell moved to St. Louis from New York with their three children, who were 9, 6, and 1 at the time. Not long after, she became legal counsel and advisor to then-Washington University Chancellor Emeritus William Danforth in his role as settlement coordinator for the St. Louis school desegregation case, and remains on the task force overseeing implementation of the settlement agreement. She is a past president of the boards of trustees of John Burroughs School and FOCUS St. Louis, and past secretary of the board of Parents as Teachers international organization. She has also been a trustee or board member of Fontbonne University, the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, the Independent Schools Association of the Central States, the St. Louis Science Center, the Deaconess Foundation, the YWCA of Metropolitan St. Louis, Christian Brothers College High School, Grace Hill Settlement House, and St. Louis Community College Foundation, among others.
“From a moral perspective, it’s important for each and every person to have access to a quality education,” Bell said. “If that individual leverages him or herself, it becomes something that we all benefit from. So it’s not only something we invest in from the moral perspective. It’s also something we invest in because it’s the smart thing to do.”
The 2019 Salute to Excellence in Education Gala will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday, September 21, 2019 at the America's Center Ballroom, following a reception at 5 p.m. Tickets are on sale now. Individual tickets are $100 each/$1,000 table and VIP/Corporate tickets are $1,500 table. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.stlamerican.com and click on Salute to Excellence, or call 314-533-8000.