What’s it like for City Connects Coordinators who work in high-poverty communities and help students succeed?
A new research study – “Experiences of practitioners implementing comprehensive student support in high-poverty schools,” published in the journal Improving Schools –provides interesting answers, pointing to both job satisfaction and systemic barriers.
The study was written by Amy Heberle, a psychology professor at Clark University and a former City Connects research fellow; Úna Ní Sheanáin, a former post-doctoral fellow who worked with City Connects; Mary Walsh, City Connects’ Executive Director and a professor at Boston College; and by City Connects graduate assistants Anna Hamilton and Agnes Chung, and former City Connects Coordinator Victoria Eells Lutas.
We know that the work of supporting students can be emotionally demanding. As Walsh and Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Daniel Warwick have written in CommonWealth Magazine:
“When children walk into their schools, they make everyone feel what they feel. Teachers, principals, even superintendents can all feel the burdens students carry, especially those who struggle with poverty and despair. Some children talk about their challenges. Others don’t. Either way, educators and administrators feel the weight of the hunger, homelessness, mental health challenges, incarceration of parents, and other hardships that many children bear. We have to feel it, because being connected to children is the only way that we can successfully do our jobs.”
And as the study points out, this burden is particularly heavy for social workers and school counselors who “play critical roles in supporting students and their families, especially those in high-poverty urban areas,” but “continue to face issues related to burnout and job dissatisfaction…”
To understand the specific experiences of City Connects coordinators who are implementing our systemic model of integrated student support, the study sought to answer three research questions:
• Do school counselors and social workers [coordinators] implementing a systems-oriented, programmatic practice model perceive themselves and their work as efficacious? What do they see as the impacts of their work?
• In the high-need, urban, low-income contexts in which they work, how do school counselors and social workers remain energized for their systems-oriented work? And,
• What are the perceived barriers to satisfaction and effectiveness for school counselors and social workers in these practice contexts?
To find answers, researchers surveyed 33 coordinators “working in six different urban public school districts and four different urban Catholic school systems across five US states” who provided written responses to six questions:
• What settings (school, clinic) have you worked in either in your internship/externship/practicum training or in prior jobs? What is your degree?
• How satisfied are you with the work that you do as a coordinator? What do you find satisfying about your work?
• Do you believe that the City Connects practice model increases the impact that you are able to have on students in your school? If so, how?
• What keeps you energized in your work as a coordinator?
• How would you compare your satisfaction and the impact you are able to have as a City Connects coordinator to your past experiences (including training experiences) working outside of the City Connects practice model? And,
• What do you think are the barriers to satisfaction in your work as a coordinator?
“Reflective writing data were analyzed through qualitative methods such as immersion, initial and focused coding, memoing, categorization, and constant comparison,” the study explains.
Analysis of this data revealed six themes. Four are positive themes:
• satisfaction comes from connecting/cultivating relationships
• coordinators see the meaningful impact of their work
• they have confidence in the effectiveness of the practice model, and
• they have high levels of satisfaction with the practice
Two of the themes are challenges to be addressed:
• how to clearly define the coordinator role and not take on unrelated work, and
• how to address systemic barriers such as inadequate school staffing and salaries that are unfairly low given the demands and responsibilities of the work
The report notes that future research could analyze models other than City Connects and assess models in suburban and rural settings. Researchers could also study coordinators, school counselors, and social workers who take steps to improve their work by “enhancing their relationships or taking steps to promote role clarity.” And a final recommendation is to examine the personal and training characteristics that contribute to professional success.
Walsh sums up the findings, saying, “The heart of our work is implementing a systematic model that helps children succeed. But to do that, we have to understand the strengths and needs of our staff. This study is a step forward in helping us understand and better support our City Connects coordinators.”