Behind the scenes at City Connects with Research Fellow Amy Heberle

Amy Heberle

Amy Heberle worked as a post-doctoral research fellow at City Connects during the 2017-2018 academic year. She is now an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

Recently, we caught up with Amy and asked her to tell us about her time at City Connects.

Why did you decide to become a psychologist?

I wish I had a great, thoughtful answer for this! The truth is that I sort of stumbled into it. I became interested in psychology in high school. I was curious about how people cope with mental illness and with stressful life experiences, and I had a vague idea that I wanted to be a therapist. I grew up with a bunch of younger nieces and nephews, and I loved helping to care for them and watching them develop, so I became particularly interested in child psychology. However, somewhere along the way I heard that you had to get a graduate degree to practice psychology, and I pretty much ruled it out as an option. There was no way I could have paid for grad school.

I ended up majoring in English. Then, in my junior year of college, I was dating someone whose parents were both professors (we ended up getting married!). From him, I found out that PhD programs are often fully funded…and suddenly a career in psychology seemed possible again. I added a psych minor to my program of study and became involved in two research groups as an undergrad, then I worked as a full time research coordinator for two years after college before applying to grad school. I share this narrative as often as I can because I think it’s important for those of us in the academy to remember all the information barriers that get in the way of first generation college grads (like me), low-income students, and students of color advancing in our fields.

Where did your interest in social justice come from?

I grew up in a large extended family in a struggling rural community. Growing up, I saw so many people struggling—to find decent work, to access needed social services and medical care, and to live fulfilling lives despite economic and social challenges. I saw how fragile circumstances could be for people in poverty, people with incarceration histories (who very often came from poverty), and other marginalized people. One mistake or bit of bad luck could have drastic consequences. I have always been troubled by this and I have therefore always been interested in trying to make life more fair and society more just for marginalized people.

What projects did you work on at City Connects?

I worked on a variety of different projects! One project was a qualitative study of written reflections that my collaborator—Una Shannon—and I collected from City Connects coordinators. We were interested in how coordinators experienced the work of implementing the City Connects model—what was satisfying for them, what energized them, things like that.

What we found is that the coordinators really connected to the whole school/whole child approach of City Connects and believed deeply in the power of the model to produce change. They also valued the opportunity to build rich relationships with teachers, families, students, community partners, and others. A write-up of that study is currently under review with a journal and will, with any luck, be published soon.

I also worked on studies of the effect of City Connects on high school dropout rates, the effect of City Connects on MCAS scores, the effect of City Connects on non-cognitive functioning, and the combined effects of City Connects and public preschool attendance on academic and non-cognitive functioning.

Another project that I am proud of was developing a new, comprehensive logic model for City Connects. The logic model essentially traces the “logic” of City Connects, from the steps involved in implementation of the model to the initial effects of the model on students, school staff, and families, all the way through to the long-term effects that we traditionally measure as evaluators (grades, dropout rates, etc.).

I also had the opportunity to lead a few trainings for coordinators and school principals and to present on City Connects data at a national conference. It was a rich year!

With whom did you work at City Connects?

I worked with a lot of people! Una Shannon was my fellow postdoc during my City Connects year and we worked together a lot. She’s a qualitative analysis guru and I learned so much from working with her.

On the more quantitative side of things, I worked closely with Caroline Vuilleumier and Jordan Lawson, both graduate students in Boston College’s MESA program (Measurement, Evaluation, Statistics, and Assessment). They taught me to be a better, more sophisticated data analyst.

Caitlin Long is my office-mate (along with Jordan and Una) and has been my go-to person for all of my questions about schools, teaching, and education policy.

Of course, I’ve also worked closely with Stacey Raczek, who leads evaluation efforts for City Connects and keeps us all on our toes, thinking carefully and critically about the work we do.

And naturally, I’ve worked a lot with Dr. Mary Walsh, City Connects’ Executive Director. We are both clinical psychologists and it’s been a lot of fun to talk about the psychological perspective on how City Connects works. Dr. Walsh provided an incredible opportunity to learn from someone who has leveraged a rich collaborative network to develop a truly interdisciplinary, evidence-based, and sustainable approach to integrated student support.

She has also brought together an incredible team of expert advisors who contribute to the evaluation and continuous improvement of the City Connects practice model. They include Eric Dearing, Laura O’Dwyer, Henry Braun, and Deoksoon Kim. They work with the research staff of City Connects to ensure the rigor of our evaluation projects. Between them, they bring expertise in developmental psychology, qualitative research methods, and quantitative evaluation of educational interventions.

The incredible thing about working for City Connects is how interdisciplinary and sharp the team really is. The people are phenomenal, and I have benefitted from working with everyone.

How has your thinking about urban poverty and helping children changed over the year?

Working at City Connects has increased my awareness of the importance of efficient, functional systems for connecting people to existing resources in their communities. Sometimes, a resource isn’t available, and that’s a problem. Often, however, a resource might be available, but students and families might not know how to access it, or they might face barriers to access (such as transportation) that are surmountable if a system is in place to address them.

What was most striking about your City Connects experience?

Though most of my work is based at Boston College, I have had the opportunity to go into schools and meet with coordinators. It’s really incredible to see how they do their work. Coordinators manage an enormous amount of information and a complex web of relationships—with parents, students, teachers, administrators, their own program managers, other coordinators, community partners—and are constantly updating service plans as students’ circumstances shift or become clearer. They are hyper-connected, taking drop-in meetings with parents/teachers/students, responding to texts, making and returning phone calls. They typically manage all of this while also responding to acute behavioral crises, implementing programming, and meeting other responsibilities in their schools—and, of course, while implementing the structured elements of the City Connects model. They need to be tremendously interpersonally skilled, clinically knowledgeable, energetic, and committed to their work to do what they do effectively. It’s really impressive to see them in action.

What questions has this experience left you with that you might explore?

I’m really curious about the potential for models like City Connects to operate in freestanding childcare programs, home daycares, and other places that serve young children and are not connected to a larger system. I have a hypothesis that the greatest impact for City Connects and similar models will be with the youngest children—I would like to test that out.

I’m also really curious about how low-income parents and children experience schools with City Connects versus schools that don’t have integrated student support. I have the idea that the presence of City Connects in a school sends the message that school is a safe and appropriate place to seek support in getting your and your family’s needs met. I would like to find out if families experience the model in that way.

What City Connects-related insights might you share with your students, if any?

I’m going to be teaching psychology undergraduates and clinical psychology grad students in my next position (as an assistant professor at Clark University). I will definitely draw on my experience with City Connects to teach students about the importance of examining and enhancing the connections between service providers and across service systems in order to increase impact.

I also think that the core of City Connects is the realization that development is linked across domains, such that students are less likely to learn effectively if their social-emotional, family, and health needs are not met. This is a fundamental insight of the field of developmental psychopathology, and I think the City Connects model provides a great illustration of how interventionists can apply that insight in their/our work.

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