Alumni Story

Leveling the test-prep field

Valencia Belle EdD ’23 is championing educational access in Alabama and beyond.

By Katrina Nash Published on

Valencia Belle EdD ’23 has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. When she was in high school, the 12-year-old scholar-athlete in track and field began offering her peers ACT test prep in science and math for a small fee. Despite her early start running a tutoring business, the Mobile, Alabama, native hasn’t always worked in education.

Before shifting her focus to education, Belle worked as a biomedical researcher. She graduated from the University of Alabama with a bachelor of science degree in biology, which she quickly put to work as a member of a National Institute of Health research team that advanced the development of HIV medications. Several years later, after obtaining a bachelor of science degree in nursing from Virginia Commonwealth University and a master’s degree in family studies and system integration from the University of Maryland, Belle began to focus on the lack of educational opportunities for girls in the Dutch West Indies, where she has familial ties. These students aspired to work in health care in the U.S., but they lacked clarity on the educational pathway required. Belle found herself drawn to workforce development, wondering, “How can I support students in their educational journey toward their goals?”

In response, Belle founded SCHOOLS (Success Can Happen Out of Low Scores) in 2015. The company is on a mission to provide high-quality, cost-effective test prep, with the goal of breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. She hopes that “one test score can spare grandparents, parents and students from going into debt.” Since its inception,

SCHOOLS has assisted over 250,000 students in the U.S. and abroad avoid more than $250 million in student loans and debt. In collaboration with educators, counselors and career coaches, SCHOOLS develops and implements tailored postsecondary-readiness courses. The courses are offered to students free of charge through partnerships with schools or at one-tenth the cost of traditional test-prep courses. Pre-nursing students in community college are also able to gain access to SCHOOLS courses through financial aid. Students who take a SCHOOLS course, on average, raise their ACT composite score by 5–10 points and their SAT score by 100–200 points.

With a goal of learning how to effectively scale SCHOOLS and expand its reach, Belle enrolled in USC Rossier’s Doctor of Education in Organizational Change and Leadership online program. Building on her earlier work, she sought to help provide students interested in health care with test preparation that could help them reach their goals to attend college and pursue their careers.

Belle also participated in the USC Education Technology Accelerator, which propelled her company into a global force. Through the Accelerator, she forged partnerships with thought leaders, enabling her to support students in Nigeria, the Bahamas and the Philippines. Mark DeGennaro, managing director of the Accelerator, describes Belle’s “passion for helping others” and her “let’s get it done” approach as contagious. DeGennaro was thrilled the Accelerator could help Belle “expand her company’s reach and improve educational access and outcomes for historically marginalized learners.”

Belle’s dissertation, which explores how educational equity impacts health care in Alabama communities, has gained recognition from the Alabama Legislature. SCHOOLS recently became the first BIPOC- and female-led company in Alabama to earn B Corp Certification, and two Alabama community colleges are now offering the SCHOOLS ACT prep course to nursing students, covered by financial aid. In 2024, this course will be available in all HBCUs in Alabama.

Belle attributes her success to the numerous professors and colleagues who challenged her. She fondly recalls the words of encouragement from childhood friend and mentor Latitia McCane, director of education at the Apprentice School in Newport News, Virginia: “You understand the problem; now, do something about it.”

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