City Connects weaves webs of support in Salem


City Connects’ first year of work in Salem, Mass., is already getting national attention. A recent article in Education Week looked at Salem’s citywide effort to promote students’ success, in partnership with By All Means, an initiative led by the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A key part of this effort is Salem’s work with City Connects.

Last September, City Connects launched in all eight of Salem’s K-8 schools. This is the first example of citywide implementation of City Connects, and at this one year mark, we want to share three takeaways. Students benefit from:

  • having access to citywide opportunities
  • relying on stronger connections between their families, schools, and communities; and
  • being supported by a web of care

Here’s how these benefits are playing out. 

1 – Creating a citywide web of opportunity for students

As we’ve blogged, City Connects is part of Our Salem, Our Kids, a dynamic citywide effort supported by Mayor Kim Driscoll and Superintendent Margarita Ruiz that serves kids from their births through to their careers. Driscoll’s and Ruiz’s vision was strongly aligned with the City Connects approach to weaving systematic student support into the city’s schools.

Instead of hiring new City Connects coordinators, Salem retrained existing staff, professionals who already knew the community and already had strong relationships.

“There is a community of coordinators who have worked very closely together as a district initiative,” Ellen Wingard, the City Connects Program Manager for Salem, says, and they have been able to forge stronger connections across the city.

“No matter what school building you go to, the coordinator can figure out an answer for you. That was one of the biggest draws to City Connects that there was this whole community out there wanting to mobilize and optimize student support.” In the past, there was no systematic way to connect students to services, but now coordinators make that work easier.

“We’re able to highlight the services and make them better,” Wingard says.

As one teacher said in a City Connects survey, “In the past, well-intentioned people have reached out and helped students in one area or another (social/emotional, health…) but there has not been as effective a system of looking at the whole child…”


2 – Strengthening the connections between school, family, and community

We’ve heard positive feedback from our community partners, the organizations that help us bring services to students. One example is Meghan Murtagh. She’s the Director of School-Based Services at Leap for Education, an afterschool program that focuses on STEAM – science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math.

“The coordinators have been able to bridge the gap between being in school and being out of school,” Murtagh says, adding that the coordinators “have been amazing with getting information out to families and identifying students that need after-school programming or would benefit from it.”

Murtagh used to rely on handing out flyers, talking to principals, and hoping that people would call her back. Now the coordinators give her a list of appropriate students.

“If I’m having trouble connecting with a family, they have an alternative. They set up meetings. They’re always helping out with the program, frequently checking in with me about students that they have identified and sent to the program. So it has just been awesome. It’s much more intentional.”

This kind of personal contact is also crucial during a crisis.

“One afternoon when school was over, we had siblings in our program, and their family had a significant crisis that involved the Department of Children and Families,” Charity Lezama, the Executive Director of the YMCA of the North Shore, recalls. In the past, it had been tough to know who inside the school to contact about this kind of challenge. 

“This year when the situation came up, we were immediately able to email the City Connects coordinator who greeted the kids the very next morning and had an alternative plan for them.”

These kind of connections enable schools to create a safety net for students.

And on a daily basis, Lezama says, “Being able to work with City Connects staff has been phenomenal for us. It’s helped us reach kids that we might not have had access to before.”


3 – Spinning a web of care

In a city that is already gearing up for its famous Halloween celebrations, the year-round work that Salem’s coordinators do to create a network of care around every student is already underway.

This year, Salem’s coordinators plan to visit each other’s schools. And Wingard says that one school’s welcome program for new students who come from outside the district — or outside the country — will be expanded across the district. “We meet with students and parents,” Wingard says, “so we can immediately assess their needs.”

“People get so excited when I say just call the coordinator,” Wingard says. “And even if a coordinator doesn’t know the answer right away, their response is, ‘Let me figure it out, and I’ll get right back to you.’”

With eight coordinators, this response is magnified eight times.

“There’s constant communications among my coordinators about a service or a family or has anybody gone through this situation. That didn’t happen before. The coordinators being that hub is really powerful.”

“City Connects has really been the lynchpin in understanding how we can work together and do it the best way.”

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