Ireland launches City Connects

Often City Connects grows because of, well, connections. That’s what happened when Una Shannon came from Ireland to Boston College to be a postdoctoral fellow. Shannon learned about City Connects and shared our work with Eugene Wall, the president of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, Ireland, as well as sharing it with ministers from the Irish National Government.

The result: Irish educators are planning to launch a City Connects pilot program this fall in 10 Dublin schools. 

“It strikes me that any ‘school person’ who hears about City Connects tends to have an ‘aha’ moment,” Shannon says. She’s a former teacher who earned her bachelor’s degree from Mary Immaculate College. “It just makes sense to support the whole child, to have a strengths-based perspective, and to have a systemic, systematic, and sustained approach to student support that’s in rhythm with school life.” 

The 10 schools — which are in Dublin’s North East Inner City, a six-square-block area where the government has launched an initiative to revitalize the economy — “are among the schools in Ireland with the most students living in poverty,” City Connects Executive Director Mary Walsh says.

Life in these 10 schools echoes life in many American schools. In both places, families can struggle with poverty and homelessness. Both have diverse immigrant communities, which in Dublin includes Asian, Eastern European, and African families. And in both places, there are persistent achievement and opportunity gaps.

 “What we’ve done is taken the lessons we have from deploying City Connects in this country, and we are using them as we think about implementing City Connects in Dublin,” Walsh says, “But we still have to adapt City Connects to the Irish context.” 

An essential part of this work was talking to each other. 

Irish educators came to visit City Connects. And Walsh went to visit Ireland along with Claire Foley, City Connects’ Associate Director, and Tina Chen-Xu, City Connects’ Senior Manager of Strategic Planning and Operations.

“A big part of that trip was exploration and sharing,” Chen-Xu says.

In addition, Pat DiNatale, City Connects’ Director of New Practice, conducted a series of interviews with all the principals and a number of school staff in Dublin. 

Now, along with Mary Immaculate College, we’re working with the Irish Youth Foundation and local government officials in Ireland’s Department of Education and Skills and its Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

While City Connects partners with nonprofit organizations in the United States, working with government partners is crucial in Ireland since so much of its (and Western Europe’s) services are delivered by government entities. 

“Dublin has a lot of the pieces in place,” Chen-Xu says. “There’s already a shared vision, both at the two departments and with principals and staff, about the importance of a holistic approach. And there’s already an emphasis on collaborating with parents and families.” 

Walsh points out that this commitment to children and families is embedded in the language of Ireland’s government. For example, the vision of the country’s Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures policy initiative is:

“… to be one of the best small countries in the world in which to grow up and raise a family, and where the rights of all children and young people are respected, protected and fulfilled; where their voices are heard and where they are supported to realise their maximum potential now and in the future.” 

(Last year, City Connects was featured in a Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures newsletter.) 

Chen-Xu says that the missing piece that City Connects can provide is the structure for better coordination of doing what we do in the states: getting the right services to the right child and the right time.

This summer, City Connects staff will provide virtual training for principals as well as three new employees who will serve as City Connects coordinators. We’ll also introduce City Connects’ data system– MyConnects — and adapt it to meet European standards for securely managing data and protecting privacy. 

“What’s exciting,” Chen-Xu adds, “is that the pilot involves educators and policymakers.” 

“For City Connects,” Walsh adds, “expanding into Ireland is an opportunity to demonstrate the flexibility of our system while maintaining its rigor and empirically demonstrating its positive outcomes. 

“If the children in Ireland can benefit from City Connects — as children in the United States do — that will be a wonderful outcome.”

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