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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A new policy brief: to help address the pandemic, federal leaders can promote integrated student support

As the country manages the health and economic burdens created by the pandemic, federal officials have an opportunity to help children and families.

A new publication, “Building Systems of Integrated Student Support: A Policy Brief for Federal Leaders,” explains how.

The need is substantial.

“From wealthy suburbs to poor inner cities and rural areas, businesses are struggling, and food lines are long,” the brief explains. And while the “funds flowing through the stimulus packages seem big on paper in Washington,” the funds can feel paltry once they arrive in communities, particularly “in the context of historic and pandemic-driven increases in child poverty, hunger, trauma, academic learning loss, and limited opportunities.”

Joan Wasser Gish, the brief’s author, sees an opportunity in the crisis. 

“This is a moment for bipartisan action to address the complex needs of children and families uncovered and exacerbated by the pandemic,” Wasser Gish says. She is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Center for Optimized Student Support at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development. “Federal leaders make decisions that set the context for how states, communities, and schools can respond to the children and families they serve. This brief provides research-informed recommendations for action.”  Continue reading

The rich rewards of holistic learning

As schools move through and beyond the pandemic, one of the best strategies they can use is holistic learning. 

Holistic learning is “a powerful approach to teaching and learning because it acknowledges that academics must be paired with non-academic support to help students thrive in and out of school,” the Rennie Center says in its new Condition of Education report, which cites City Connects as an example of holistic learning in action. 

Understanding and responding to students “holistically reflects the reality that each learner comes into the classroom with a unique set of strengths, challenges, aspirations, and life experiences,” the report, which was released yesterday at a virtual event, explains. “Overlooking these distinctions means that too many students—particularly students of color—do not receive the support they need to thrive in school or beyond.” Holistic learning, in other words, “seeks to break down barriers.”  Continue reading

Job satisfaction for City Connects Coordinators – a research study


What’s it like for City Connects Coordinators who work in high-poverty communities and help students succeed?

A new research study – “Experiences of practitioners implementing comprehensive student support in high-poverty schools,” published in the journal Improving Schools –provides interesting answers, pointing to both job satisfaction and systemic barriers. 

The study was written by Amy Heberle, a psychology professor at Clark University and a former City Connects research fellow; Úna Ní Sheanáin, a former post-doctoral fellow who worked with City Connects; Mary Walsh, City Connects’ Executive Director and a professor at Boston College; and by City Connects graduate assistants Anna Hamilton and Agnes Chung, and former City Connects Coordinator Victoria Eells Lutas. 

We know that the work of supporting students can be emotionally demanding. As Walsh and Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Daniel Warwick have written in CommonWealth Magazine: 

“When children walk into their schools, they make everyone feel what they feel. Teachers, principals, even superintendents can all feel the burdens students carry, especially those who struggle with poverty and despair. Some children talk about their challenges. Others don’t. Either way, educators and administrators feel the weight of the hunger, homelessness, mental health challenges, incarceration of parents, and other hardships that many children bear. We have to feel it, because being connected to children is the only way that we can successfully do our jobs.”  Continue reading

Educating educators in the middle of a pandemic

“Had there not been a pandemic, would we have experimented with things that felt innovative? I don’t know,” Rebecca Lebowitz says of how City Connects has spent the last months coming up with new ways to provide professional development for educators both inside and outside our network. 

Lebowitz is City Connects’ Senior Manager of Learning and Development, and when she was hired last year, no one was worried about a global pandemic. Lebowitz was busy developing professional development programs. 

When the pandemic hit, she had to move all of our training efforts online.

“This summer, we had all hands on deck, we had an amazing team working together. We all put our heads together and everyone played a role. We really focused on refining our objectives.” 

The work started with responding to a crisis.

It grew into developing innovations that will permanently change what we do. 

“In our conversations about planning and rollout and implementation, we think a lot about the relationships that we’re building with participants,” Lebowitz says. Her PhD dissertation at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education looked at the impact of early childhood instructional coaching both on teacher performance and on children’s outcomes. 

How do you promote strong professional development relationships in a shoreless ocean of Zoom calls and online chats? By rethinking everything.  Continue reading

Yan Leigh: the new Director of Research and Evaluation

We’re excited to welcome Yan Leigh to the Center for Optimized Student Support, the home of City Connects, here at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development.

Leigh is the center’s new Director of Research and Evaluation. 

What motivated her to pack up and move to Boston in the middle of a pandemic? 

“I feel strongly connected to and vested in the vision, mission, and core values of the center,” she says. “School districts and states have been hit so hard by the pandemic, so there is not a better time than now to be part of the center’s work. When there’s a crisis, there are challenges for sure, but there are also opportunities.” 

“Our education system has a history of giving some students less of every critical resource. That’s why we need to use evidence-based interventions to reshape the system, one classroom and one student at a time.” 

As an economics graduate student at the University of Mississippi, Leigh thought she would work on business development for a nonprofit organization or work in the private sector. 

“But during my years as a graduate student, I developed a strong interest, an obsession really, in connecting educational research and practice.”  Continue reading

Welcoming our new graduate assistants

Every year at City Connects, we are excited to welcome a new cohort of graduate assistants. The GAs, as we call them, come from different programs here at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, and they bring passion and energy to our work.

“The GAs typically work with us for an academic year, and we want their experience to be a valuable part of their education,” Claire Foley, City Connects’ Associate Director, says. “Many of the GAs give conference presentations and they contribute to our multi-disciplinary team.”

This year’s cohort of new GAs bring a wealth of experience to City Connects. They are:

Elizabeth Dowgert, earning a master’s degree in School Counseling

Dowgert is working on City Connects’ policy outreach and communications efforts. She’s a former preschool teacher who brings insights from the world of early education, where there’s a strong interplay between “whole child” approaches and education, Foley says.

“Elizabeth is really drawn to the idea that school can be a place where you look at and address kids’ out-of-school needs.” She will be working with us to translate our experience implementing City Connects in early childhood settings into lessons and resources for practitioners and policymakers. Continue reading

New courses on providing integrated student support during a pandemic

The pandemic has underscored what we’ve always known at City Connects: The best way to help children is to be systematic and intentional about providing comprehensive supports – even in the face of global instability. 

To do this work, we’ve had to adapt, and we’ve had to work harder than we had ever imagined.

The pandemic “forced us to develop the best online training we’ve ever had for City Connects,” Mary Walsh, City Connects’ Executive Director said recently of new courses that City Connects has developed on providing integrated student support during a pandemic.

To share this knowledge more broadly, we are offering the courses for free to elementary school teachers and counselors across the country as, Walsh says, a “gift during this horrible COVID time.”

The four courses are online and self-paced. They were initially offered in August and sold out in hours. Now, by popular demand, a second run of the courses is available until Friday, October 16, 2020. Participants also have the option of signing up for an accompanying synchronous Zoom session.  Continue reading