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.
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.”
“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.