“We are getting services to kids faster and more intentionally than we were before,” Program Manager Jennifer Bronson says of how City Connects is working in Hamilton County, Tenn., home to a socio-economically diverse group of students in Chattanooga and surrounding suburban and rural areas. “We are being deliberate.”
This is a story of how City Connects, which launched in eight county schools last September, is generating data and information that help schools understand students’ needs and meet them.
Because of a community effort called Chattanooga 2.0, the region was already looking at workforce and education challenges. This led to joining By All Means, a program run by the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) that helps close educational achievement gaps.
“It’s a call that started with our business community. We had workforce needs we couldn’t fill while also wanting to do what was needed for kids,” Keri Randolph told Harvard Ed. Magazine. Randolph is a former Hamilton County assistant superintendent and an HGSE doctoral student.
In addition, some families are grappling with poverty. In 2017, 21.4 percent of children in Hamilton County lived below the poverty level, compared to only 17.5 percent nationwide.
To address these needs, Hamilton County decided to set up City Connects in four elementary schools and four middle schools.
“It’s been an eye-opening experience,” Bronson says.
Thanks to school counselors who conduct City Connects’ whole class reviews, which look at every student’s strengths and needs, Bronson says county educators “truly know what their schools look like. They have more information than they ever have about the kids and their families.”
City Connects has also identified the needs of students who would have flown below the radar because they don’t have easy-to-spot academic or behavioral challenges. This includes students who have low self-confidence and need more skills developing healthy relationships. Those students could benefit from targeted social/emotional programs in these areas. Educators are also able to connect the dots between, for example, a second-grade student and fourth-grade student who had a common relative who passed away. And there’s a greater awareness of how asthma and other chronic health conditions are affecting attendance.
One result: “Teachers feel heard and they feel their students are being seen as whole children,” Bronson says.
Community partners play a key role, helping to meet the needs that City Connects uncovers. The YMCA has a backpack program that sends food home as well as an after-school program and a produce truck that sells fresh produce at cost. Other partners include the Boys and Girls Club; Big Brothers Big Sisters; and Chattanooga’s Department of Youth and Family Development, which provides a range of services for children and families.
“There’s so much positive morale around the fact that the community partners are finally all coming to the table,” Bronson says.
At a recent “shindig,” all of the county’s child-facing organizations met to learn about each other and discuss how to operate more strategically.
One challenge in Hamilton County has been the impact on school counselors of learning so much about the challenges that so many students are facing. But Bronson praises the counselors for their willingness to do this work and use the City Connects model to create positive change in students’ lives.
The upside of City Connects, Bronson says, are the students and all the strengths they bring to school:
“One of my favorite things about City Connects is that we always lead the conversation by talking about students’ and families’ strengths. That puts us in a position to be able to leverage what kids already have going for them, because every kid has something to offer in this program.”