Margo Ferrick first learned about City Connects four years ago.
Ferrick, a lifelong educator, was presenting at a Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education workshop where she met Ellen Wingard, the City Connects Program Manager in Salem, Mass., who was also doing a presentation.
Back then, Ferrick was so impressed by what she heard, she submitted a grant application to bring City Connects to Southbridge, Mass., where she worked, but the project wasn’t funded until recently.
Today Ferrick is City Connects’ new Director of Student Support Programs & Practices. But it was years ago that she understood how important it was to individualize student services.
“We can’t have a one-size-fits-all model,” Ferrick says. “Kids are often asked to fit into criteria that are prescribed for them, and not all kids can be successful that way. We also have to understand that there can be significant barriers to success in students’ lives.”
Ferrick has seen these barriers up close in Lowell, Mass., where she started her career as a school social worker who provided individual, group, and family therapy as well as crisis management support.
Later in her career, she helped develop The Career Academy, an alternative, full-service Community School in Lowell that asked the question: What does it take to keep students facing substantial barriers in school? Community partners were essential in this work. One example is YouthBuild, which helped students gain experience in construction and leave high school with the credentials they needed to go to a union shop and get a job.
In 2017, Ferrick became the Deputy Superintendent in Southbridge. The district was in receivership. A year earlier, the Boston Globe had reported that the district had “one of the state’s lowest percentages of students scoring proficient or advanced on last year’s MCAS exam. In addition, more than one-third of secondary school students in Southbridge failed at least one course last year.”
Ferrick explains, “Southbridge struggles with poverty, mental health challenges, and substance abuse. I often say it’s a small town with big city problems with limited infrastructure to support all these challenges.”
Ferrick’s job was “to meet the needs of all kids by helping to rebuild the entire school district.”
Eventually, Southbridge found the funding to implement City Connects, a process that began last month.
“We had gotten the schools to a place where the climate and culture were much more stable, and we could move on to the next level of digging deeper into how we could meet, not just a student’s needs, but their family’s needs. And the structure of City Connects is a perfect way to add to Southbridge’s tiered system of support.”
Now that she works for City Connects, Ferrick is able to get back to her roots as a social worker and serve students in diverse ways. She is responsible for four buckets:
• the implementation of the traditional City Connects model
• the new Midwest Technical Assistance Center that has been launched with Marian University in Indiana to serve the surrounding region
• the S3 Academy, a partnership with the Rennie Center and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to help schools develop their own systems of integrated student support, and
• helping The Center for Optimized Student Support manage its growing collection of continuing education programs, which has expanded in response to the pandemic and the pressing need to help educators across the country manage the many barriers that students now face
“We’re thinking about how to create continuing education pathways – not just one-and-done sessions — that are aligned with our belief in integrated student support and that build capacity within schools, whether or not they are using the City Connects model.”
Ferrick says that now is an important time to encourage schools to engage in integrated student support practices because of growing national awareness of how powerful this approach is.
“It’s hugely significant that City Connects was a part of the federal government’s pandemic relief fund recommendations about how to help impacted students.”
Another key part of City Connects, Ferrick says, is the inspiring story that its data tells.
“It’s a story of resilience,” she says. “The data tells us that if we are able to understand who our kids are and what they need, and if we can fill in the gaps of what they need, then all kids can be successful.
“When we lower barriers and give kids the right resources, they can shift the narrative of success. So it doesn’t matter how much money you have, what your background is, or what neighborhood you live in, success is equally and readily available for everybody. But it’s incumbent upon the adults, to make sure that we clear the path so that all students can be successful.”