Sizing up the new school year

“It is calmer,” Laurie Acker, the City Connects Program in Minnesota, says of the brand new school year.

“When Covid first hit it was an emergency and there was chaos. Then last year was extremely hard for teachers and students. Now this year, there’s science and protocols. We’re following CDC guidelines. If there’s a Covid positive case, we don’t have to shut down a grade or a school. Instead, we can quarantine close contacts.”

But even in this relatively calmer phase, Acker and the City Connects Coordinators she supervises are supporting students and planning ahead.

“We’ve gotten to the point where instead of being reactive, we’re proactive. We’re able to have kids eat in lunchrooms in designated spots. Kids can take their masks off when they go outside. And at some schools, Covid testing for teachers is required,” Acker says.

Coordinators are also much more attuned to signs of anxiety, so they can see when students might need more support.

“We’re running more skills groups for students that focus on coping and calming strategies.”

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A new report on the importance of seeing, hearing, and understanding every child

As the country continues to move through the pandemic, it needs proven strategies to help its students. To show how this can be done, the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has released a new report that features a number of student support programs including City Connects.

The report – “Seizing the Moment for Transformative Change: A Framework for Personalized Student Success Planning” – notes:

“Even before the pandemic, it was clear that a one-size-fits-all approach to education and child development is not a successful strategy.”

During the pandemic, children have had a vast range of experiences, “ranging from those who have had every possible support and opportunity to aid them in keeping pace with their studies to those who have been off the grid altogether, totally disconnected from their teachers and schooling.

Now, the country has to educate this diverse population of students, and the only way to do so is through “personalization.” 

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On vacation

The blog is going on vacation. We’ll be back in the fall. Have a great summer!

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. 

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Providing professional development as the pandemic fades

The pandemic has forced City Connects to grow in ways that have led to unexpected progress. 

One example is the evolution of the summertime professional development programs we run for City Connects’ program managers and coordinators.

Last summer, when we were only a few months into the pandemic, we moved all our professional development programs online

This year’s programs continue to be online, and they build on what we’ve learned about training and about the country’s current challenges.

Earlier this week, we held our first summer professional development event, the annual June meeting for our program managers, who provide crucial training and coaching for our coordinators who work directly with students in schools. 

“This year we covered three big topics,” Rebecca Lebowitz, City Connects’ Senior Manager of Learning and Development, says of the project managers meeting.

“First, we did a lot of work on equity to build our program managers’ professional and personal capacity. We knew that in order to build the capacity of our coordinators who are working in the schools, we have to start with the program managers.”

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As the pandemic recedes, schools can do more to support students

As this school year came to a close, most students had returned to in-person school. The pandemic had loosened its devastating grip, although its impact on students remains. Now, as the country moves forward, it’s time for schools to provide a 21st century education by providing integrated student support, the wraparound services – like help with food, health, and housing – that allow kids to thrive.

One example of how to provide this support is City Connects, Joan Wasser Gish writes in a new CommonWealth magazine article, “ ‘Wraparound’ services crucial to school reopenings.”

In the article, Wasser Gish — Director of Strategic Initiatives at Boston College’s Center for Optimized Student Support, the home of City Connects – points out that even before the pandemic, many children faced tough circumstances.

“…52 percent of children were in households with income low enough to be eligible for free or reduced lunch in school. In Massachusetts, child poverty, homelessness, and mental health needs were steadily on the rise. And then COVID-19 hit.”

The resulting devastation was tough for families. But as the country rallies, Wasser Gish explains, there are also opportunities.

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A Brookings article on tackling funding silos to better serve children

One significant challenge when it comes to helping children and families is running into funding silos – restrictions on public and private funds that do not allow for flexibility in responding to families’ complex needs.

A recent article – “The COVID-19 experience shows government budgeting can become more nimble” — from the Washington, D.C., think tank Brookings, explores the problem – and explains how City Connects is part of the solution.

“Most of the major social challenges facing America, from homelessness and opioid dependency to achieving successful aging and good family health, require the successful coordination of funds from many government programs. In general, we are not good at doing that,” the article’s authors Stuart M. Butler and Timothy Higashi write.

Butler is a Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at Brookings. And Higashi is a Senior Research Analyst in the Economic Studies program.

“Programs tend to be siloed at all levels of government,” they add, “with most managers reluctant to allow funds to be used outside their explicit purposes. Moreover, eligibility rules, restrictions on data sharing, and other accountability requirements present significant obstacles to collaboration and flexibility.”

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Detectives: City Connects coordinators in early education programs

News headlines keep echoing a dismal fact: across the country, children are dealing with the trauma of living through a global pandemic. 

This is true for both school-aged children and for young children ages 0 to 5. And as City Connects Coordinator Elizabeth Planje explains, working young children in preschool programs to provide services and promote healing requires a different lens.

“You do have to be a little more curious to find the root cause of what’s bothering very young children,” Planje says. She’s the coordinator at Sacred Heart School, in Lynn, Mass., as well as a therapist. At Sacred Heart, she works with students as young as 2.9 years old. “The older kids can tell you more about what’s going on, but with younger kids you have to be more of a detective.” 

This means observing, thinking, and testing out ideas across all four City Connects domains — academic, social/emotional, physical health, and family — to understand children’s needs.

Planje tells the story of a young child who screamed every time he went to the restroom. It took some reflection, but eventually Planje and the teachers theorized that the child was experiencing sensory overload. The sound of flushing was too loud for him. The solution: he now goes to the restroom wearing headphones that muffle the noise. 

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