“Finally, finally, finally, the whole child is back on the agenda and that’s very, very exciting for all of us in this room,” Mary Walsh said last week at City Connects’ annual Community Partner Breakfast.
Educators and community leaders attended the breakfast, which was held at Suffolk University Law School. The theme was “Supporting the Whole Child.”
The keynote speaker was Liz Walker, a former television news anchor and currently the Senior Pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church. She was followed by a panel discussion that featured four school and community partners who work with City Connects.
For Walsh, the breakfast was a chance to rally the troops – the teachers, the City Connects coordinators, and the community partners who provide an array of services — and explain how their work is helping Boston’s students.
“This is the right way to work with children,” Walsh said, adding that for years, education’s focus was solely on academics. But now there’s growing agreement that helping the whole child means providing support in four domains: academics, health, family, and social/emotional behavior.
“Their eyes are important,” Walsh said. “Their ears are important. Their lungs are important. Their family constellations are important. Their community is important. It’s all important. And if we want them learning and being successful in school, all of those domains have to be part of the picture.”
“The basis of all our hope, is that development can be altered… the right interventions can shift the course of development.”
The data story
Data is a vital part of City Connects’ story, so Walsh shared some of the numbers that show how the model works. There’s more than 16 years’ worth of data on the 50,000-plus students who have gone to City Connects schools, including 34 schools in Boston, where last year 275 community partners helped provide 91,600 school- and community-based services. One-third of these services occurred in schools, and two-thirds were delivered by community agencies.
Of these services, 56 percent were prevention and enrichment, positive support that sends kids to places such as after-school programs and camps. Another 33 percent of services provided early intervention to help children tackle problems. And 11 percent of services provided intensive support for students facing crises.
The outcome: children who receive help with problems they face outside school, do better inside school. Students who benefit from City Connects’ “whole child” support during elementary school find that in middle school their scores on the state’s standardized math test approach the state average. Their English language results are similar. In addition, City Connects:
• helps all children, especially English Language Learners
• leads to less chronic absenteeism and lower high school dropout rates, and
• produces positive results for two important subgroups: African-American and Latino males, and
Students who attend both pre-K and City Connects schools get the most benefit of all.
What Liz Walker learned about helping children
“As a pastor of a small church on Warren Street in Roxbury – I don’t know if you know that location – but I’m half way between Dudley and Grove Hall,” Walker said in her keynote speech. “I am inspired every day by the families and children that I serve.”
When Walker took over as pastor, she inherited a church with a focus on education. The church set up a Saturday tutoring program that focused on reading and math. The students – many of whom were immigrants and “some of the poorest of the poor children” — mostly came from the Higginson/Lewis School and the Dearborn School.
“But it only took us a week or two to realize that tutoring… is not enough,” Walker said.
In Roxbury, it was only after paying close attention, that Walker and her church learned how much trauma children faced, from homelessness and daily exposure to criminal activity to struggles with behavioral medication that did more harm than good.
“We had to try to heal a child, or at least be a healing presence, so we had to get to know them better.”
“We have to get to know each other. That’s the only way we’re going to make this whole thing work.”
“I see this as a world problem of trying to step in where people need help and support and encouragement.”
Who’s going to lift up our children? Walker asked the breakfast attendees. “It’s all of you and what you’re doing.”
A panel discussion on the four domains
The panel discussion featured one speaker for each of the four developmental domains:
Health: Katherine Majzoub, Director of the Northeast Region of Prevent Blindness and a former school nurse
Social/Emotional: Nora Leary, Vice President of Program Services for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay
Family: Raghida Jeranian, Engagement Liaison for the Boston Public School’s Office of Engagement
Academics: Traci Walker-Griffith, Principal at the Eliot K-8 Innovation School
It takes hard work to help parents meet the health care needs of their children, Majzoub explained. “We should make it as easy for families as possible.”
You can’t just send home “a piece of paper” with information.
“We need to make sure children can see.” And that means bringing services like eye exams directly to children. The need is substantial. Majzoub said that 10 percent of preschoolers are not seeing well; and 25 to 35 percent of older children are not seeing well without some intervention.
“It is about fairness. It has always been about fairness. It’s not fair for a child to struggle unnecessarily.”
For Leary, whose work with Big Brothers Big Sisters puts her squarely in the social-emotional domain, working with a City Connects coordinator makes her organization more effective. The coordinator helps find the right kids, supports the Big Brother or Sister, works with families, and connects with teachers. It’s harder to do this work in schools that don’t have a similar point person.
“Managing partnerships takes work,” Leary said. “And making those partnerships thrive needs resources.”
For Jeranian, who works in Boston’s engagement office – and who used to work as a City Connects coordinator — engaging families is a work in progress.
City Connects “allows us to have a system to make sure that in addition to addressing the needs right in front of us, we’re addressing the needs of all students.”
“This model allows us to talk about each child, to provide the services that they need, and partner with the family and the community agencies who are the experts in those domains.”
It’s the work of pooling expertise: the parent’s knowledge of their child; the teacher’s knowledge of education; and everything that community partners know about mentoring, dental care, or whatever services they provide.
“What it allows us to do is put the experts around the table together to support a child around what their needs are and what enriching opportunities they need.”
For Walker Griffith, a former teacher who became a principal, City Connects gave her early work in education more reach.
“There were no systems in place for me,” Walker Griffith said of her early teaching career in an underperforming school 26 years ago. “But I knew my kids needed something.” So, she put together the services her students needed piece by piece, relying on her own personal connections.
“As a classroom teacher, I was going to die trying, but I knew there had to be a better way.”
“I landed at the Tobin,” she said, “and there was City Connects.” The model provided the systematic approach to helping children that Walker Griffith had been looking for. “If you want kids to perform at high levels, you have to have happy healthy kids.”
In 2007, when she first arrived, her current school had 150 kids and 39 suspensions. Eleven years later, however, the school has 660 students and roughly 2 suspensions.
“That doesn’t happen because we just kept our eyes on giving more math and giving more reading. It was thinking about this whole system and having coordinators that could connect me to all these wonderful partnerships.”
Patrice DiNatale, the Director of New Practices at City Connects, closed the meeting by thanking everyone for their dedication and hard work helping each child in each school every day. As for the future of boosting students’ success, DiNatale closed by saying:
“We’re going to do this together, and we’re going to make it happen for kids.”