“Looking back to look ahead” is the theme of a newly released annual report – The Condition of Education in the Commonwealth — that points in part to the power of City Connects as a long-standing practice that can strengthen the future of education in Massachusetts by helping “schools build systems of integrated student support.”
Released by the Rennie Center for Education and Research & Policy, the report first came out in 2013.
Now, in 2023, the report says, “our focus on reviewing statewide data and highlighting promising strategies remains critical: despite numerous changes in policy and practice over the past 10 years, we continue to see many of the same trends in student outcomes that were present prior to 2013. Too few students are achieving proficiency in reading, math, and science. Persistent opportunity gaps affect access to affordable early childhood education, advanced coursework, college and career pathways, and other resources.”
The problem is “…our current system is not designed to ensure success for each and every student. Looking to the future, we must work collectively to transform our education system into one that offers equity and excellence for all.”
The pandemic has made the work of transforming education even harder.
Speaking at the release of Rennie’s report, Massachusetts’ new Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler said his office will, as WBUR reports, “operate from a framework: stabilize, heal and transform.”
“ ‘The use of the words “stabilize” and “heal’ are deeply intentional,’ said Tutwiler. ‘And designed to convey that we are still in a recovery period (from the pandemic). We are not back.’ ”
As Massachusetts stabilizes, heals, and restructures education, City Connects can play a crucial role as a model that creates new structures to promote student success.
As Rennie’s report says, City Connects’ “process starts with putting a coordinator in each school who conducts whole class reviews to understand the strengths and needs of every child. With this information, coordinators connect students to a range of highly personalized resources.”
Once the pandemic hit, coordinators worked even harder, using the City Connects model to support students, even when they had to do most of this work through video conferencing.
Liz Yoder, a City Connects coordinator at the Carlton Innovation School in Salem, Mass., is one example. She participated in the Rennie Center’s Community Conversation, which features practitioners who are implementing innovative student support strategies.
“One thing we’ve specifically done at Carlton is incorporate common planning time for SEL,” social-emotional learning, “for all of our teachers,” Yoder says.
“Our adjustment counselor will meet with each of the teachers once a week and talk about the competencies that we’re noticing students may need extra support [with].” Yoder and her colleagues design lessons to help students practice these skills, and the teachers teach these lessons during morning meeting.
The result is a community victory. This SEL intervention is specifically tailored to meet students’ needs. Teachers have the support of the counselor, the coordinator, and each other as they address these needs. And the SEL lessons help students learn and grow.
Yoder has also implemented a student interest survey, a part of the City Connects practice. Students fill out the survey and share their interests. Younger students can respond by circling pictures of activities they’re interested in. Older students fill out a traditional survey. Yoder will take this information and share it with community partners so that they can meet students’ clearly expressed desires.
“I was really interested to see how many of our kids were interested in creating a writing club,” Yoder says. “They want to write stories and they want to learn how to put a newspaper together.”
City Connects is being implemented in other Massachusetts cities including Boston, Springfield, and more recently, Beverly. Massachusetts could weave the work of these cities into a statewide approach, following the lead of Indiana and Ohio where City Connects has been supported by state and federal funds..
“States are increasingly supporting the implementation of evidence-based models that benefit students, teachers, and taxpayers. Massachusetts is well-positioned to build on a strong foundation in policy and practice to advance what works,” explains Joan Wasser Gish, Director of Systemic Impact at the Boston College Center for Thriving Children, which incubates City Connects.
As the Rennie Center’s report concludes, “Massachusetts is fortunate to have so many programs and initiatives that aim to promote long-term success for students.”
“Yet amid the richness of our education landscape, we also recognize that for effective program models to lead to meaningful, widespread changes in student outcomes, they must be linked with fundamental changes to our education system.”
At City Connects, we’re making those fundamental changes. We’re sharing our work with colleagues in City Connects and non-City Connects schools. And we’re excited to be a part of the future of educational innovation in Massachusetts.