Tigers make the week better

City Connects Coordinator Shannon Underwood needed a way to boost students’ morale in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her students were back at Immaculate Conception Parish School in Revere, Mass., in person and full time. They were wearing masks, using hand sanitizer, and sitting behind plexiglass shields that had been attached to each of their desks. Afterschool programs had been cancelled because of Covid. And work with the school’s community partners had been curtailed.

So Underwood implemented the idea of naming a “Tiger of the Week,” a student who demonstrated excellence through service to others. Students get a certificate and a small trophy. A tiger is the school’s mascot.

“I wanted to incentivize random acts of kindness,” Underwood says.

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Making summer plans in Minnesota

Last month in Minneapolis, it was about 43 degrees, but the City Connects Coordinators there were still planning for summer.

In a summer fair held on Zoom, the coordinators met with community organizations to learn about programs that they can refer students to for academics, enrichment, and fun. This is especially important now, following the past year of pandemic-related social distancing and disruption.

Sharing information about these programs with families is a core part of the City Connects model. We know that to do well in school, students have to be well outside of school. That’s why we connect students to homework help and food assistance. It’s also why we connect them to arts and sports programs: enrichment outside of school, can help them thrive during school.

Community organizations are essential in this effort. We connect these organizations with kids. And the organizations provide creative activities with unique elements for all children and for children with special needs. Among the Minnesota summer options coordinators are sharing:

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S3 Academy: empowering schools to set up their own systems of integrated student support


As students return to in-person learning inside their schools, many are bringing the traumas of the pandemic with them.

Schools can help by providing integrated student support, a whole child approach that meets students’ academic, social-emotional, family, and health needs. To learn how, educators can attend the Systemic Student Support (S3) Academy, an initiative of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The scale of students’ needs is daunting.

As Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) said earlier this month at an event hosted by the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, “Our mental health and our young people’s mental health was a pressing need before the pandemic.” 

“As we all know, for many young people, this past year has been the hardest of their lives.”

Students have endured everything from losing in-person contact with friends to falling into — or falling deeper into — poverty to the loss of loved ones who have died from Covid.

“So much has changed since all students were last in school full-time,” the Rennie Center adds. “Eight million people have slipped into poverty, and 14 percent of households with children are struggling with food insecurity. Meanwhile, mental health-related emergency department visits are up 24 percent for children and 31 percent for adolescents. We will be learning about the impact of COVID-19 on children for years to come. But what we know right now is that they need extra support.”

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Seeking out the greatest needs

Even though the pandemic has engulfed the nation, creating unprecedented challenges, City Connects is working with its funders and community partners to meet students’ and families’ needs. One example is in Minnesota.

“This year, because of the pandemic, the needs of students and families have shifted,” Laurie Acker, Minnesota’s City Connects Program Manager, says. “A lot of these needs – food, housing, computers, and mental health services – we have the resources to meet. But it’s hard to find resources for families who want to stay in their homes when they can’t pay the rent because they’re unemployed or underemployed.”

“Fortunately, the GHR Foundation contacted me. They knew that families needed help with rent.” 

Based in Minneapolis, the GHR Foundation is a longtime supporter of City Connects. Its mission is to “be of service to people and their limitless potential for good.”

While there is a moratorium on evictions for unpaid rents, evictions for other reasons are still allowed. And as Acker points out, some unemployed parents have no way to plug the holes in their earnings and come up with back rent.

So Acker took action.

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The Power of Relationships: A Coordinator shares her story in the Boston Herald

Lexy Marsh

“While 2020 is over, I’m still yearning for normalcy … for the sound of small voices and screechy sneakers in the hallway of my school, the Oliver Wendell Holmes Innovation School in Boston,” Lexy Marsh writes in a new op-ed that just ran in the Boston Herald.

Marsh is a City Connects Coordinator who has been working through the pandemic, to support students and their families. 

At the heart of this work, Marsh explains, is building relationships — even in the middle of a pandemic. 

“…I have had to learn how to connect with and support students and families from afar. I see hundreds of students every day online,” she writes. 

“In our school, 86% of our students have high needs; 77% are economically disadvantaged; 30% are homeless; and all qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Those are last year’s numbers. This year, the pandemic is bringing new waves of poverty and illness that are not yet quantified.”

Marshalling community resources remains an essential part of Marsh’s job:

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Creative community solutions keep students engaged in school

Photo courtesy of KARE11


When City Connects Coordinators in Minnesota saw that students engaged in virtual learning were missing from school, the coordinators dug in to find out why.
 

“There were several reasons,” Laurie Acker, the City Connects Program Manager in Minnesota, says. “Some students didn’t have access to the Internet, or they had spotty access because a number of people in their homes were trying to use computers.” Other students lived in homes that were crowded or distracting. 

“The other thing we saw was that for a number of families there wasn’t any parental assistance at home, so some students were trying to do school by themselves without help. Younger students didn’t always know how to use the computer. And middle school students weren’t always motivated to use it.” 

Fortunately, Valerie Quintana saw a solution: use office buildings that have been emptied out by the pandemic to create study spaces for school children. 

Quintana is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Real Minneapolis, a nonprofit organization that “responds to the immediate and fluid needs of historically under-represented individuals by thoughtfully listening.”  Continue reading

Managing the pandemic in preschool

“Preschool shouldn’t be like this,” Erika Griffin says of the Early Learning Center in Salem, Mass., where children have their own desks and their own bins of toys that only they can play with – all to protect them from spreading COVID-19. 

“When the kids need a break from sitting at their desks, the teachers put Hula Hoops on the ground six feet apart and each child sits in their hoop so they can play on the floor, just to give them a break from sitting at their desks. At the end of every day, those toys are sanitized. We work hard to come up with small, creative solutions, and the kids have been great with that.” 

Erika Griffin

Griffin is both a City Connects Coordinator and a school adjustment counselor at the Early Learning Center, and she’s used to children sitting at large tables, socializing, and sharing toys. 

But what Griffin’s work shows is that even during a global pandemic, City Connects continues to work in early education settings. 

As we’ve blogged, the core of the City Connects practice remains the same, whether it’s implemented in preschools, elementary schools, high schools, or colleges. Coordinators conduct whole class reviews with teachers and in consultation with families to assess the strengths and needs of each and every child.  Continue reading

Courtney Pollack: a researcher’s journey to City Connects

courtney-pollackCourtney Pollack, a former middle school teacher, stands in two worlds. 

As a Research Affiliate in the Gabrieli Lab at MIT, she does laboratory-based research. 

At Boston College, she does applied research. 

“Laboratory research contributes important knowledge about learning. But there’s a long runway from the lab to the classroom, so it takes time and several intermediate steps for this knowledge to have an impact on how students learn every day,” Pollack explains.

“Another approach is to conduct applied education research, which is what the Center for Optimized Student Support does.” Pollack is a Senior Researcher at the center, which is home to City Connects and based at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development.

“Researchers in the center study the City Connects intervention, which is grounded in prior child development research from different disciplines and from both laboratory and applied settings.” 

Long before Pollack was an academic, however, she was a college student who had started thinking about how education works because she was tutoring middle school students in Arizona who were struggling in math.  Continue reading