City Connects launches in Beverly

Megan Sudak

This fall, City Connects launched in the Beverly Public School system, and just a few months in, we’re seeing successes.

Beverly was fortunate. It already had student support teams in place. But once the pandemic hit, Beverly, like cities across the country and the world, saw students’ needs surge. Students struggled with anxiety, self confidence, and how to engage in age-appropriate ways even though the pandemic took away so many normal, in-person school days.

Faced with these challenges and given its focus on equity, Beverly wanted a way to address the needs of all its students. So school officials explored their options and went to visit the town next door, Salem, Mass., where City Connects is part of a citywide effort to improve student success.

Partnering with Salem

Beverly decided to launch City Connects in five elementary schools, its middle school, and the 10th grade in its high school.

Beverly also began a very productive civic friendship with Salem.

“Salem has been awesome,” Megan Sudak, Beverly’s City Connects Program Manager, says.

As Sudak oversees Beverly’s program, she has consulted Salem’s program manager, Mia Ricci, who is also a former City Connects coordinator. The two cities are sharing some resources and facing similar post-pandemic shortages of school bus drivers and mental health services.

Responding to Whole Class Reviews

Despite these and other pandemic challenges, Beverly’s City Connects team is busy. They’re conducting whole class reviews to understand students’ strengths and needs and building or strengthening relationships with community partners, including the YMCA, which runs onsite afterschool programs in Beverly’s schools.

“The Y is a great partner,” Sudak says. “They have their site coordinators in every school, so they’re seeing the kids, too. And we know that kids behave differently in different situations. My City Connects coordinators have been introduced to the Y’s coordinators. So as long as parents have signed a waiver, we’re able to share more information and learn more about our students.”

“And when the Y does enrichment programs, they’ll use our teachers, so we know what enrichment kids are getting and we know which kids are on waiting lists for which programs, so we can see if 100 kids are all waiting to get access to a particular problem, and we can try to address that need.”

Another community partner is the local library.

“We’ve met with the library team to learn about all of the free programming they do, and we’re trying to share this with more of our middle school and high school students, and we’re working on enabling students to participate. I hate to sound corny, but this work really is about making connections with people.”

Many Helping Hands

Beverly’s coordinators are also working closely with students. In one school, a coordinator saw that fourth graders were struggling with their coping skills, so the coordinator organized a Coping Ninjas skills group, an afterschool opportunity for kids to learn and practice skills like identifying stressors and thinking about how to respond to stressful situations that are likely to reoccur.

“The coordinator is helping students understand that even if they can’t control an emotion like fear, they can think about how to use a skill like controlling their breathing the next time they are afraid. It’s really about giving kids tools,” Sudak explains.

The feedback on the program has been great, and other schools are considering setting up their own ninja groups.

“Another coordinator is organizing a mentoring program,” Sudak says. “She’s identifying high school students who can serve as mentors for middle school students. One key goal is to engage high school students.” And it will be a real accomplishment, Sudak says, if, for example, a high school student can play soccer with middle school students who don’t have access to transportation to play on a town or travel soccer team.

Guided by Data

Another layer of insight that City Connects brings to Beverly’s schools comes from detailed data analysis.

“The data has been helpful and eye-opening,” Sudak explains. “Not all our elementary schools are seeing the same challenges, so we can distinguish among them. We can also do things like look at the entire fourth grade across all our City Connects schools. And we can get a sense of how, for example, our students of color are feeling about things.”

“It’s also great to be able to print out information, and say to teachers, Here’s the list of your kids. Here are the strengths and needs we talked about. Here’s what tier they’re in. Here’s the action plan. And teachers, especially the elementary school teachers, say, I’m really glad we did this process because I need to think about this information.

Sudak has also been sharing data overviews with principals so that they can learn more about their schools.

Even in the midst of the pandemic, Sudak remains energized and empowered by City Connects.

“We can’t sit here and complain about what we can’t do. We have to think about what we would do in a perfect world and how we can get close to that. We have to keep working toward our vision of the future that we want for our students.”

City Connects helps Beverly get closer to that goal.

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