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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Celebrating Teachers at the Tobin School

Last October, Jannet Sanchez started working as a City Connects Coordinator at Boston’s Maurice J. Tobin School.

Her first step? Learn about her new school quickly by building strong relationships with teachers.

Classes had been going on for a month, but only remotely because of the pandemic, so Sanchez couldn’t have the face-to-face interactions with students that help coordinators get to know their schools.

Relationships with teachers filled this gap. Teachers shared feedback on how students were doing, supplementing what Sanchez could see when she did classroom observations on Zoom.

To conduct whole class reviews, Sanchez met with teachers in teams so she could hear multiple perspectives on each student.

“We communicated a lot about the best services for kids. And some teachers asked me to set up social skills groups,” Sanchez says. “One teacher asked us to come up with a girls leadership group because there were some mean girl dynamics. Another teacher asked for an art club, so I set that up. It was me and the art teacher encouraging girls to draw and socialize.” 

The teacher/coordinator relationship is crucial — whether there is or isn’t a pandemic — because it’s a two-way street. Coordinators learn from teachers’ about students strengths and needs. And teachers learn more from coordinators about all the City Connects domains — academic, social/emotional, physical health, and family — of students’ lives. 

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Meeting with our community partners — virtually


“Our community partners are so vital to the work of City Connects” Lynne Sullivan, City Connects’ Director of Implementation, says, “so we encourage each district to hold a community partner event each year.”

Whether it’s a breakfast in Minnesota or in Boston, these events let our partners and our staff come together to share both the work they’re doing and their goals for better serving students. They get to chat, brainstorm, and make connections.

“City Connects’ role as a convener is so important,” Sullivan says. “We want to create time for broader discussions. We want to cut through the pandemic’s isolation. And we want schools and community partners to hear directly from each other about what, specifically, they need from each other.

But in the middle of the pandemic, meeting face to face isn’t safe. So City Connects co-hosted a virtual event for our coordinators, our community partners, and the principals of public schools and Catholic schools in the Boston area.

Our co-hosts were the Boston Public Schools’ Office of Community Partnerships and the Archdiocese of Boston’s Catholic Schools Office.

“We convened everyone remotely so they could hear from each other what they’ve been doing during the pandemic,” Sullivan says, “and so they could talk about how they’re planning for the next school year.”

The event included a panel discussion featuring two principals — Efrain Toledano of Boston’s Tobin School and Beth Looney of Boston Catholic’s Mission Grammar School – explaining what they’ll need from community partners when their schools reopen in the fall.

“The principals said to the community partners, ‘Please share all your ideas for how you want to work with kids.’ ‘No idea is crazy,’ ” Sullivan says. “The principals are eager to identify the gaps in services for kids so that they can work with community partners to fill them.”

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A new City Connects Coordinator: Shannon Stamegna

Shannon StamegnaOnce upon a time, Shannon Stamegna thought she might go to law school. But after she started looking at educational programs, she found the social work program at Salem State University. 

“The description of the program and of learning to help others just matched my personality,” she says. “I also loved the idea of working with families and connecting them to community services.” 

“I think there are times when parents think it’s best to figure things out themselves, when really they would be so much better off asking for help and getting connected to community organizations that are excited to provide support.” 

Stamegna worked in community health as a licensed clinical social worker. But because of the pandemic she had been working at home, still helping people but at a distance. 

Then she heard about a job opening at City Connects. So two months ago, she jumped into a new challenge and a year-old pandemic and became the City Connects Coordinator at St. Pius V School in Lynn, Mass.  Continue reading

Sharing what we do — with federal help

As schools find their way through the pandemic, meeting the needs of all students has become more important — and harder for educators to do. That’s why City Connects and the Center for Optimized Student Support, both part of Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, are empowering educators across the country to rethink their approaches to providing student support.

The U.S. Department of Education is helping us share what we do by featuring the City Connects model in the newly released “ED COVID-19 HANDBOOK: Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting All Students’ Needs,” Volume 2

The handbook covers how to create safe and healthy learning environments, address lost learning time, and support the stability and well being of educators and school staff. 

In a section on addressing resource inequities, the handbook says in part: 

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A new article: pandemic recovery and integrated student support

As the country steers through the pandemic, successfully rebuilding schools is essential. Students, families, teachers, and school staff members have spent more than a year dealing with the chronic physical and emotional challenges of pandemic life, from losing contact with friends to losing jobs to losing loved ones.

A new article published by the Washington, D.C., think tank Brookings explains how schools can meet these needs by becoming more powerful and effective.

K-12 schools can, the article explains, use more than $190 billion in federal relief funding to “transform the hodgepodge of services and programs available to students into powerful systems of learning and opportunity.”

The article’s co-authors are Joan Wasser Gish, the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Boston College’s Center for Optimized Student Support, home to City Connects, and Brooks Bowden, a University of Pennsylvania Professor and the Director of the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education (CBCSE).

The outcomes of providing evidence-based integrated student support are impressive. Student attendance and achievement improve. Schools are using the model to navigate the pandemic. And as the article notes, CBCSE has studied City Connects and found a substantial return on investment.

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