By the time Elizabeth McKernan graduated from Boston College in 2018, she had been a student teacher at Brighton High School, Milton High School, and Waltham High School.
In her senior year, she was already taking graduate school classes at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development and working on her master’s degree, and she was determined to have an impact on students.
“That’s always been my perspective on teaching: If I can make one student’s life a little bit better then I’m doing it right,” she says.
Last month, McKernan made her mark in educational policy with an opinion piece in CommonWealth magazine — “Customized student support can level the playing field” — that begins:
“As a new high school teacher, I paid attention when educators, mayors, and Patriots players gathered before the Joint Committee on Education last month to testify on behalf of high needs students in Massachusetts.
“Legislators on Beacon Hill are considering three different proposals to revamp the state’s school funding formula, and Patriots safety Devin McCourty summarized the general opinion of those who testified: ‘You got to level the playing field.’ ”
Leveling the playing field is crucial to McKernan who learned about how City Connects does this work when she took a Lynch School class on education reform.
“We spent a week reading about City Connects,” McKernan says, “and the data was very telling. City Connects significantly closes the achievement gap in English and math. Teachers can actually teach. And students can actually learn. The program was very clearly and definitively making a difference in these students’ lives.”
Later, McKernan became a graduate assistant at City Connects where she focused on education policy. The experience “demystified all the decisions that get made before students get to the classroom. Seeing how that process works has been really insightful.”
“It’s given me more options in terms of ways I can make the changes that will help our children thrive,” she adds. “I want to make a structural difference in this country or this state’s education system and my time at City Connects has given me the tools and knowledge that can make broad improvement possible”
Policy might be a future career option, or administration. For now, however, McKernan is sharing the power of City Connects’ approach in providing integrated student support, and how this effort could grow. In her article she says:
“Massachusetts schools need increased funding, but for those dollars to be impactful, schools must mobilize them in a way that addresses students’ comprehensive needs, including out-of-school factors that can inhibit in-school learning.”
McKernan writes that City Connects is one way to have an impact at scale because the program, “takes advantage of preexisting resources and structures in schools and communities.” McKernan also points to the BARR program, which was “started 20 years ago by a Minnesota high school counselor” and “takes a holistic approach to student support in high schools.” BARR deploys teams of teachers who review students’ strengths, needs, and progress; engage families; and implement BARR’s social-emotional curriculum.
Focusing on individual students is essential, McKernan says. What surprised her most as a student teacher was that students who had behavioral challenges turned out to be incredibly willing to learn “as soon as you give them one-on-one attention, providing them with the resources and scaffolds that they need.”
“It’s that specialized, individualized attention that you give students that shows that you care. And right away, they have this immediate positive response.”
McKernan says that Massachusetts could make this kind of progress by carefully recrafting its school funding formula so that education dollars are strategically invested in student success. As she concludes in her article:
“If we want students to thrive, then we need to connect them to customized systems of support that address out-of-school barriers to academic success. No amount of differentiated instruction can compensate for the impact that poverty, domestic violence, and stress have on a student’s readiness to learn. I can’t expect my students to leverage a levelled playing field inside the classroom if they struggle to keep their footing the moment they leave.”