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

A City Connects Progress Report

Years from now, people may fall into the habit of asking each other: What were you doing right before the COVID-19 pandemic struck and how did it change your life? 

Here at City Connects, we’ve already been asking these questions — about our students and about our work. We are also asking how we can be even more effective as the country addresses long-standing racial inequities. 

And now, as we move into the fall, in a mix of in-person, virtual, and hybrid schools and classrooms, we are determined to get the right services to the right child at the right time. 

It is in this spirit of striving that we release “City Connects: Intervention & Impact Progress Report 2020.” 

In our progress reports, which are published every other year, we reflect on the past and assess the present. But this year, we’ve also taken the time to express our gratitude for all the hard work that has gotten us through the pandemic.  Continue reading

New brief: COVID-19 and the importance of comprehensive services

In the midst of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, schools and community partners are mobilizing to help students with resources beyond academics.

“In every community, people are working in emergency conditions to address similar challenges. How do we get children food? How do we ensure everyone has access to technology needed for learning? How do we maintain students’ and families’ relationships with teachers and others who know and care about them? How can we best help our families help their children?” Joan Wasser Gish asks. She is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development’s Center for Optimized Student Support, the home of City Connects. 

“By synthesizing answers to these questions and adding the expertise of practitioners to that of policymakers and scientists, we hope to provide information that is useful and actionable,” Wasser Gish adds.

That’s why the Center is releasing a new policy brief. Continue reading

Our statement on COVID-19

Mary E. Walsh
Mary Walsh, Executive Director of City Connects

Because the students and families we serve will be especially hard hit by the educational, social, and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for strong and effective approaches to student support has never been greater. To help meet this need, the Boston College Center for Optimized Student Support will continue to bring you information and best practices relevant to effectively serving children and families before, during, and after this crisis. The Center’s flagship program, City Connects, is continuing its commitment to provide high-quality, evidence-driven student support in this challenging time.

As schools across the country shut down due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, City Connects Coordinators are responding to the needs of students and families impacted by this ever-changing crisis. 

“Many families of the students in our City Connects schools will be especially vulnerable to the worst effects of this crisis,” said Mary Walsh, our Executive Director. “For families whom we serve, this pandemic means unexpected unemployment, heightened food insecurity, lack of child care, and sudden loss of stability provided by the everyday routine of school.”

City Connects Coordinators have been hard at work preparing for school closures. Across all our sites, the most immediate and critical need is food for families and children who rely on school breakfast and lunch programs. Every city in which we work has found different ways to address food provision for students. In Dayton, Ohio, for example, coordinators are helping with a drive-by pick up service at school so families can easily obtain packages of food. In Minneapolis, City Connects Program Manager Laurie Acker and her team have helped coordinate regular delivery of boxes containing food to bus stops. They are also letting students and families know which restaurants in the Minneapolis area are offering free food for those affected by school or business closures. Continue reading

The people behind our technology: Brian Ward and Kevin Lopez Mader

Brian Ward and Kevin Lopez Mader


City Connects is well-known for its data-informed practice and use of technology to provide the right service to the right child at the right time. For Brian Ward and Kevin Lopez Mader building City Connects’ technological capacity has been part of a compelling journey.

Ward got his first computer when he was eight years old, and he started building computers when he was 12. It was a personal interest that grew alongside his academic interest in philosophy, which he studied at Whitman College and at Boston College, earning a master’s degree.

It was as a philosophy graduate student that he got a job working for BC’s Technology Consultant Organization, providing software and hardware support to faculty at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development.  Continue reading

How graduate assistants add to our work

Every year, City Connects has a dozen or so Boston College graduate assistants who contribute to our work and share our knowledge. 

“One of the best things about having graduate assistants is that they really become true collaborators and members of our team,” Claire Foley, City Connects’ Associate Director, says.

“They are involved in all the different phases of our work: research, implementation, and policy. That includes collecting and analyzing data, literature reviews, organizing a community event, or sharing our research at conferences.” 

City Connects selects students from different Boston College programs including Counseling Psychology, Applied and Developmental Psychology, and MESA, the Measurement, Evaluation, Statistics, and Assessment program. 

In addition to learning about the City Connects model, graduate assistants contribute their own intellectual curiosity about how the model works and what makes it effective for students. 

One great example is Despina Petsagourakis, a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development. Continue reading