Building the future of education in Massachusetts

“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.

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By the numbers: City Connects in Dublin, Ireland

City Connects is in its third year of operations in Ireland, where it’s running in Dublin’s North East Inner City (NEIC), an area with high concentrations of students who live in poverty.

Since then, the program has brought new services, supports, and enrichment programs to students. Here’s a by-the-numbers look at what has been accomplished, drawn from NEIC’s 2022 Progress Report

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Sharing lessons and stories: City Connects’ Executive Director Mary Walsh

Mary Walsh, Executive Director of City Connects and the Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children (Photo: Caitlin Cunningham)

Ask Mary Walsh, the Executive Director of City Connects, about her love of education, and she talks about her parents who grew up in Ireland and were only able to attend school through the fourth grade. 

“It was always my dad’s deepest regret that he never could get more education,” she says. 

Walsh shares this story and the road that led her to become a professor of education in Boston College Magazine’s What I’ve Learned section. 

As Walsh tells BC Magazine, one key lesson she has learned from her father is “Nobody can take your education from you.”

However obstacles like poverty, hunger, and parental depression can prevent children from getting an education in the first place. What can make a difference is equipping schools to move these obstacles aside so children can learn. And that’s why Walsh launched City Connects, to put Coordinators in schools who look at every child and provide services and supports to maximize each child’s readiness to learn. 

Another lesson is “Always live on the hyphen.” 

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National Governors Association highlights integrated student support

In 2022, “gubernatorial elections were held in 36 states and 3 territories,” according to the National Governors Association. And as these newly elected or reelected governors are being sworn into office in the shadow of the pandemic, many are looking for ways to provide more students with more access to mental health and to wraparound services. 

These governors face obstacles.

Billions of dollars are invested in these services by local, state, and federal governments, “to promote healthy child development and academic progress,” according to a recent policy brief from Boston College’s Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children, the home of City Connects.

“These resources have the power to be transformative. 

“Too often they are not.”

That’s because a “complicated tangle of programs, services, and resources creates a barrier to children’s wellbeing, learning, and opportunity. Transforming this delivery system is both possible and urgent.”

To help governors and their staff do this transformative work, the National Governors Association held a webinar on community schools and wraparound services, and invited Joan Wasser Gish to talk about integrated student support and the new National Guidelines for Integrated Student Support.

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City Connects Coordinator Jelena Soots sees kids the way she wanted to be seen

“I’ve been a teacher for a long time, but I’ve never helped kids at this level,” Jelena Soots says. She’s the City Connects Coordinator at GEO Next Generation High School in Indianapolis, Ind. 

“I was drawn to City Connects because my family and I are immigrants. And in the forefront of my mind is, What would have helped me as a child? What if we had this option back then? That’s how I shifted into the mindset of thinking about what kids need based on who they are.” 

Soots and her family immigrated from Croatia in the 1990s when the country was at war. They lived in a refugee camp in Germany and applied to refugee programs run by churches. They were chosen by a church in Indiana.

“At our school, we have a lot of students from different countries, so talking about my experience with them is an icebreaker,” Soots says. “And even though I’ve been here for a long time, I sometimes struggle with how to identify with American culture and how to identify with my Croatian culture, and with the mix of both.

“So I try to be understanding with our students who are in those formative years of puberty and early adulthood and have to navigate the norms they see at home and the norms they see in school and everything in the middle.”

Soots is also full of energy and optimism. One example is her no brakes strategy for finding community partners. 

Continue reading “City Connects Coordinator Jelena Soots sees kids the way she wanted to be seen”

Happy holidays!

Happy holidays! The blog will return in January, 2023. See you next year.

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.

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To boost attendance, build a stronger school community

Myriam Villalobos has so much optimism and energy that she has turned chronic absenteeism into an opportunity for building a stronger school community. And last month, she was awarded a $20,000 grant from the Boston Public School system to do this work. 

“I am a teacher. I am a therapist. I am not a grant writer,” Villalobos, the City Connects Coordinator at Boston’s Maurice J. Tobin School says. “I have never asked for money, so I had to learn about the process, and I was fascinated by that.”

Her approach was to think globally about the big picture – and to do so with compassion. 

The Tobin had 66 students who missed more than 20 percent of school. Another 144 students missed 10 percent. Chronic absenteeism is typically defined as missing at least 10 percent of school. 

“Sometimes we are very critical about why parents decide to keep their children at home. But there are many social issues there. There’s inequality, transportation, and parents who don’t speak English and need their children to be translators. There are also parents who get sick and don’t have anyone they can ask to bring their children to school. 

Continue reading “To boost attendance, build a stronger school community”
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