At NSNO, we were devastated by the news of Robert Bell’s passing in January. Robert’s impact in and outside of the education community in New Orleans was enormous. He was deeply loved and will be sorely missed.

Robert was among the first distinguished cohort of E3 Fellows at NSNO, and we asked Nicole Saulny, a member of that first cohort and Robert’s longtime friend and colleague, if she would be willing to share some memories. We are grateful for her thoughtful reflections, which we share with our community here.

As I reflect on the legacy of my colleague and dear friend Robert Bell, I think of a life well lived. He was a pillar of the community gone too soon. Robert was just an all around great person. If you ever had the pleasure of meeting him, you immediately understood his heart and soul were around his mission to educate the children of New Orleans with only the best: teachers, schools, curriculum.

I first met Robert during my interview at Lafayette Academy Charter School (LACS). It was the summer of 2007, and a lot was changing in public schools in New Orleans. He was the assistant principal, and I was interviewing as a division head for the first and second grades. During the interview, Robert expressed how passionate he was about growing LACS into a “top gains” school, an honor from the state awarded for the academic growth shown by a school’s students. I got the job, and over time, we grew a bond of respect and admiration for each other. As Robert and I worked for four and half years together at LACS, we became more like family than colleagues. Robert’s wife and I had actually attended the same all girl Catholic high school, Xavier Prep. 

Robert and I would speak at least once a month after he left Choice Foundation to become assistant principal, and then principal of Lake Forest Charter Elementary School.

We both encouraged each other to apply for NSNO’s E3 fellowship. After our first E3 weekend retreat, we both knew the program would add value to us professionally.

Nicole (top row, on the left), Robert (front row, center), the first E3 Cohort, and
former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr.

Strong convictions, deep dedication to children

Robert loved to have conversations about the latest trends in education, what he thought was wrong with our system, and ways we could change the system together. He would debate about education, and sometimes the debate made you feel uncomfortable. He would hit you with facts and even quote some data from a recent study. He would push your thinking, and he was not afraid to challenge anyone’s thinking about education. Yet, no matter how heated the debate turned, you walked away with great respect for Robert.

Many people may say Robert was strong willed about his belief in children, and he never backed down. But he also never stopped showing care for others. He had a heart of gold, and he treated everyone he met with the utmost respect. Whether or not you agreed with him, after having a conversation with him, or even being in his presence listening to him, you learned something. Perhaps you learned about New Orleans’ history, heard a story about his family, reflections about one of his students, tales of his days as an administrator, or simply got to hear about one of his fishing trips. Robert would tell the story with such vivid details that you felt as if you were there too. Robert was the life of any party– he could get people to laugh and enjoy themselves, no matter who the person was to him.

A powerful career and a profound impact 

Robert made sure you knew his journey as an educator. He started as a paraprofessional and worked his way up to becoming a school administrator. 

Robert led Lake Forest Charter Elementary School to earn an “A” letter grade for years. He would often share his plan with me that he wanted to spread the great work happening at Lake Forest school to all the schools in New Orleans East.

Robert knew education, and he knew how to educate the whole child. When we worked together, I saw him pouring his heart and soul every day into pushing our students of New Orleans to be their best selves. Robert pushed his colleagues, too–he led us to think about investing more in our students and building positive relationships with them. He often told me, “our babies need so much love.” Witnessing Robert’s love for the children of New Orleans is a memory I will keep for a lifetime.

Robert was dedicated to serving his community, even when he wasn’t at work. Robert started H.O.N.O.R (Helping Our Neighbors with Our Resources) Foundation, a local non-profit which included a cleaning campaign in New Orleans East. He organized huge groups to pick up trash and beautify shared spaces. We would often talk about how important leaders have to be servants of their community – and he absolutely was one.

It was my honor to know him as a colleague, a fellow educator, a thought-partner through E3, and, of course, as my friend.

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