Renewing our commitment to equity: a message from Mary Walsh

Mary E. Walsh
Mary Walsh

As long as I’ve worked in schools, I have seen and worked against inequity. But the racial injustices of the past year have triggered a national crisis that demands new attention.

These inequities, which date to the country’s birth, have created glaring opportunity gaps that have led to persistent achievement gaps. Along with countless colleagues, I’ve worked to close these gaps, providing support and services to students. 

In 2000, one of the most striking features of many schools was the number of students who were plagued by poverty. They were hungry or homeless or needed eyeglasses or dental care. Here in Boston, there was no systematic and systemic way to meet these needs. School staff spent most of their time assisting students who were “behavior problems.” Students who seemed okay got less attention. If a teacher learned that a student needed winter boots or a coat, there was no clear, systematic way to help.

In 2001, I worked with colleagues in the Boston Public Schools and at Boston College to create a systematic way to address these inequities for every student in a school, because a child who is hungry or cold or in pain isn’t ready to learn. Through a two year planning process with Boston educators, families, and community organizations, we developed City Connects, a model for providing integrated student support that’s based at the Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development. City Connects put coordinators, typically social workers and school counselors, into Boston Public Schools. They looked at every student’s strengths and needs and connected each student with a tailored set of supports, resources, and services. The coordinators tracked information and monitored student progress. 

The goal, from City Connects’ inception, was to ensure that every student — and every family — would receive equitable access to resources, positive relationships, and meaningful opportunities that kids need to be ready to learn and thrive. To hold ourselves accountable, we rigorously measured outcomes to see if City Connects was empowering children to reach more equitable outcomes in school and in life.

Now, in 2021 we are again staring down the deep well of inequity. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic we are also grappling with the pandemic of structural racism that has been highlighted by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others. In the shadow of these tragedies more of the country agrees that Black Lives Matter. And at City Connects, we are renewing our commitment to equity by sharpening our focus on race and racial justice. 

City Connects has had a long-standing commitment to equity and equitable outcomes. In the early days of the program we listened closely to The Education Trust, a national nonprofit that closes opportunity gaps for low-income students and students of color. We drew on a framework for student health developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We did our work in Boston. And we gathered insights from the developmental sciences. 

Drawing on this multifaceted input, we knew we had to serve all students, not just the ones with intensive needs. We knew that students needed a wide range of support and enrichment opportunities — students needed more than academic help, special education, and mental health services. We knew we needed to connect students to community resources, not just school-based supports. And we understood that to be truly effective, we had to meet the needs of students and their families. 

Given the population of the Boston Public Schools, both then and now, City Connects coordinators largely work with kids of color, African American and Latinx students. Today, City Connects coordinators serve an even more diverse group of students in 104 schools across three states and Ireland. A crucial part of coordinators’ work is building authentic relationships, getting to know students and families through casual conversations and formal events like summer camp fairs. Coordinators have also developed relationships with community organizations – the YMCA, local colleges and mental health providers, sports and tutoring programs, and summer camps – so that they can refer students to organizations they know. A vital outcome: helping students and building stronger communities.

As City Connects has grown, we keep asking the same question: Does this model work? Are students in City Connects schools better off? Researchers at Boston College and other universities have studied City Connects and found evidence that students in City Connects schools have better attendance and higher grades. They do better on standardized tests, and they are more likely to graduate from high school. 

Teachers report that City Connects helps them understand more about their students’ lives, and when students are struggling, City Connects provides comprehensive, consistent help. 

Still, we ask ourselves tough questions. Does City Connects work for all students or just for certain demographic groups like girls or white students? Are we in fact helping all students? Research continues to provide answers. For example, the City Connects model has produced strong positive results for African-American and Latino boys. Evidence of these kinds of positive outcomes has led to City Connects’ implementation across the country.

In Minneapolis, our City Connects schools serve students and staff who have had to face the brutal inequity that led to George Floyd’s death. Because his death and the deaths of other African Americans have devastated students across the country, we’re asking how City Connects can work even harder to promote racial justice.

We want to inspire change at the individual level, and then empower individuals to create more equitable communities. To do this we are drawing on the resources of Boston College and the larger community to have hard conversations about race and racial equity. 

We’re asking ourselves how much we really know about the lives of our African American and Latino/a students. We’re asking ourselves how much we know about the student who just flew in from Latin America six months ago and then has to sit down and take the MCAS exam. We’re asking ourselves how we can support our schools and community agencies as they engage and honor family voices and diverse experiences and cultures. 

To continue to evolve ourselves, we’re working hard on our own inherent biases. We want to better advance racial equity in all facets of the organization. We understand the importance of having coordinators who look like the students they serve. We’re embedding an equity lens in our professional development programs. We’re expanding opportunities to contract with a diverse set of vendors. And we’re working with consultants who are helping us understand how we can leverage our strengths to better address racial inequity. 

Twenty years ago, the goal of City Connects was to address the inequity we saw in how schools deliver student support. Today, despite two decades of progress that we’re proud of, we feel compelled to do more by promoting a meaningful, deeper racial equity that can help students — and families and communities — thrive, so that students can grow up in and contribute to a more just society.

— Dr. Mary Walsh, Executive Director of City Connects and Daniel Kearns Professor of Urban Education and Innovative Leadership at the Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development

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