Schools are on the front lines of the nation’s mental health crisis: integrated student support is a key strategy

A new opinion piece for the education website K-12 Dive discusses how schools are doing more to address students’ comprehensive needs in the middle of the pandemic. The article highlights the positive role of evidence-based, integrated student support approaches, including City Connects.

In the article, author Joan Wasser Gish — Director of Systemic Impact at Boston College’s Center for Optimized Student Support, the home of City Connects — writes that educators have been expecting the mental health crisis caused by the pandemic.

Wasser Gish writes:

“Budget decisions made long before children and youth returned to in-person, full-time school anticipated that children undergoing a year and a half of isolation, deprivation, stress — and in many cases, trauma and grief — would return to school with a range of social, emotional and mental health needs.”

School districts in different cities are taking different approaches.

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Practice and research: a conversation with Maria Theodorakakis

Even as an undergraduate at Boston College, Maria Theodorakakis was looking for a way to combine her academic interests with hands-on work.

“I was looking for a major that really kind of combined my interest in psychology and sociology with my interest in helping kids and working in schools,” Theodorakakis recalls.

A conversation with the late John Cawthorne, a former Associate Dean in BC’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, led her to transfer from the College of Arts and Sciences to the Lynch School – and that’s where she found City Connects.

Back in those days, in 2007, when City Connects was only in five Boston schools, Theodorakakis applied for and received a summer research fellowship, joining the City Connects team. 

She has stayed involved through college and graduate school (she earned a PhD in counseling psychology at Boston College). And today she’s City Connects’ Senior Manager of Clinical Practice and Research. She also works as a child psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Focusing on both practice and research has given Theodorakakis a unique view of City Connects.

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A City Connects community partner responds to Covid

Community partners are essential to the City Connects model of getting the right services to the right students at the right time — especially during the pandemic. One example:

“We work with an organization called Every Meal, which used to be called Sheridan Story, and on Fridays they provide kids with food in backpacks,” Laurie Acker, the City Connects Program Manager says.

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National mental health emergency for children and adolescents


The pandemic has put such tremendous pressure on students and schools that national health associations have declared a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health. 

“This worsening crisis… is inextricably tied to the stress brought on by COVID-19 and the ongoing struggle for racial justice and represents an acceleration of trends observed prior to 2020,” a declaration from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association says. 

“Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020 and by 2018 suicide was the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24. The pandemic has intensified this crisis: across the country we have witnessed dramatic increases in Emergency Department visits for all mental health emergencies including suspected suicide attempts.” 

This crisis is a rallying call for the country and for City Connects.  Continue reading

The (evidence-based) power of eyeglasses

Last school year, in the middle of the pandemic, getting services to students was hard, but in Minnesota Helen Keller Intl, a City Connects community partner, persisted.

“In a normal year, Helen Keller goes into schools and conducts eye screenings,” Laurie Acker, the City Connects Program Manager in Minnesota, says. “They also have an eye doctor who will give a complete eye exam if a student needs glasses.”

Last year, Helen Keller Intl brought its services to local Catholic Schools implementing the City Connects model.

“Of course it was a little bit more challenging because we had to wipe everything down and we could only have two kids in the room at one time. The coordinators were really instrumental in facilitating this process.”

Sometimes this meant getting reluctant students excited about new eyeglasses. “We try to help them feel good,” Acker says. Other times it’s a matter of sharing in the excitement.

And for one student, it was a matter of doing detective work.

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Observations from the pandemic: a policy brief


The pandemic’s global toll has been devastating, especially for students and schools. But as City Connects has moved through the last 18 months, we’ve observed a range of needs that we are sharing in a new policy brief, “Effects of the pandemic on students, families, and school staff in 2020.” 

The brief draws on the power and insights of City Connects’ network, which currently includes over 140 schools in five states and in the nation of Ireland. During the height of the pandemic, we gathered information from City Connects Coordinators who implement our model by assessing students’ needs and strengths and delivering responsive services. In November 2020, 73 of 90 invited coordinators responded to an anonymous survey. The brief is based on a subset of these coordinators’ responses to a longer survey.


Working through a pandemic 

When schools shut down in Spring 2020, the brief notes, “children, families, and staff in high-poverty schools faced the compounding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing racial and economic injustice.” 

 During this harrowing time, City Connects coordinators continued their work in a range of situations. As the brief explains, “14% of coordinators worked at schools with fully in-person learning and worked in the school, whereas about half of coordinators worked in schools with remote learning and were working from home.” 

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Welcoming Margo Ferrick to City Connects

Margo FerrickMargo Ferrick first learned about City Connects four years ago.

Ferrick, a lifelong educator, was presenting at a Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education workshop where she met Ellen Wingard, the City Connects Program Manager in Salem, Mass., who was also doing a presentation. 

Back then, Ferrick was so impressed by what she heard, she submitted a grant application to bring City Connects to Southbridge, Mass., where she worked, but the project wasn’t funded until recently.

Today Ferrick is City Connects’ new Director of Student Support Programs & Practices. But it was years ago that she understood how important it was to individualize student services.

“We can’t have a one-size-fits-all model,” Ferrick says. “Kids are often asked to fit into criteria that are prescribed for them, and not all kids can be successful that way. We also have to understand that there can be significant barriers to success in students’ lives.”  Continue reading

Expanding our mission

Across the country, school staff, families, and students are entering another year that’s sure to be full of unexpected challenges and uncertainties. To promote healing and each child’s potential, it is critically important that we meet this moment by redoubling our focus on connections with children and families and on the unique strengths and needs that each student brings with them to school.

That’s why here at the Boston College Center for Optimized Student Support, we are widening our mission and expanding into more school districts in Indiana, Massachusetts, and New York. As part of this expanded mission, we will serve as the nation’s hub for the science, implementation, innovation, and information of promoting learning and healthy child development through the effective integration of whole-child supports.

For more than ten years, we have been part of a growing national movement to bring insights from the sciences of child development and learning to advance “whole child” approaches. Because of these insights, we know that students’ in-school performance is affected by factors that exist out of school. We know that hunger, homelessness, trauma, and stress affect a child’s readiness to learn. We also know that every child is unique, with strengths and opportunities to grow that should be met individually, rather than with one-size-fits all solutions.  Continue reading