Renewing our commitment to equity: a message from Mary Walsh

Mary E. Walsh
Mary Walsh

As long as I’ve worked in schools, I have seen and worked against inequity. But the racial injustices of the past year have triggered a national crisis that demands new attention.

These inequities, which date to the country’s birth, have created glaring opportunity gaps that have led to persistent achievement gaps. Along with countless colleagues, I’ve worked to close these gaps, providing support and services to students. 

In 2000, one of the most striking features of many schools was the number of students who were plagued by poverty. They were hungry or homeless or needed eyeglasses or dental care. Here in Boston, there was no systematic and systemic way to meet these needs. School staff spent most of their time assisting students who were “behavior problems.” Students who seemed okay got less attention. If a teacher learned that a student needed winter boots or a coat, there was no clear, systematic way to help.

In 2001, I worked with colleagues in the Boston Public Schools and at Boston College to create a systematic way to address these inequities for every student in a school, because a child who is hungry or cold or in pain isn’t ready to learn. Through a two year planning process with Boston educators, families, and community organizations, we developed City Connects, a model for providing integrated student support that’s based at the Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development. City Connects put coordinators, typically social workers and school counselors, into Boston Public Schools. They looked at every student’s strengths and needs and connected each student with a tailored set of supports, resources, and services. The coordinators tracked information and monitored student progress. 

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As the pandemic recedes, schools can do more to support students

As this school year came to a close, most students had returned to in-person school. The pandemic had loosened its devastating grip, although its impact on students remains. Now, as the country moves forward, it’s time for schools to provide a 21st century education by providing integrated student support, the wraparound services – like help with food, health, and housing – that allow kids to thrive.

One example of how to provide this support is City Connects, Joan Wasser Gish writes in a new CommonWealth magazine article, “ ‘Wraparound’ services crucial to school reopenings.”

In the article, Wasser Gish — Director of Strategic Initiatives at Boston College’s Center for Optimized Student Support, the home of City Connects – points out that even before the pandemic, many children faced tough circumstances.

“…52 percent of children were in households with income low enough to be eligible for free or reduced lunch in school. In Massachusetts, child poverty, homelessness, and mental health needs were steadily on the rise. And then COVID-19 hit.”

The resulting devastation was tough for families. But as the country rallies, Wasser Gish explains, there are also opportunities.

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A Brookings article on tackling funding silos to better serve children

One significant challenge when it comes to helping children and families is running into funding silos – restrictions on public and private funds that do not allow for flexibility in responding to families’ complex needs.

A recent article – “The COVID-19 experience shows government budgeting can become more nimble” — from the Washington, D.C., think tank Brookings, explores the problem – and explains how City Connects is part of the solution.

“Most of the major social challenges facing America, from homelessness and opioid dependency to achieving successful aging and good family health, require the successful coordination of funds from many government programs. In general, we are not good at doing that,” the article’s authors Stuart M. Butler and Timothy Higashi write.

Butler is a Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at Brookings. And Higashi is a Senior Research Analyst in the Economic Studies program.

“Programs tend to be siloed at all levels of government,” they add, “with most managers reluctant to allow funds to be used outside their explicit purposes. Moreover, eligibility rules, restrictions on data sharing, and other accountability requirements present significant obstacles to collaboration and flexibility.”

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Sharing what we do — with federal help

As schools find their way through the pandemic, meeting the needs of all students has become more important — and harder for educators to do. That’s why City Connects and the Center for Optimized Student Support, both part of Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, are empowering educators across the country to rethink their approaches to providing student support.

The U.S. Department of Education is helping us share what we do by featuring the City Connects model in the newly released “ED COVID-19 HANDBOOK: Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting All Students’ Needs,” Volume 2

The handbook covers how to create safe and healthy learning environments, address lost learning time, and support the stability and well being of educators and school staff. 

In a section on addressing resource inequities, the handbook says in part: 

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A new article: pandemic recovery and integrated student support

As the country steers through the pandemic, successfully rebuilding schools is essential. Students, families, teachers, and school staff members have spent more than a year dealing with the chronic physical and emotional challenges of pandemic life, from losing contact with friends to losing jobs to losing loved ones.

A new article published by the Washington, D.C., think tank Brookings explains how schools can meet these needs by becoming more powerful and effective.

K-12 schools can, the article explains, use more than $190 billion in federal relief funding to “transform the hodgepodge of services and programs available to students into powerful systems of learning and opportunity.”

The article’s co-authors are Joan Wasser Gish, the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Boston College’s Center for Optimized Student Support, home to City Connects, and Brooks Bowden, a University of Pennsylvania Professor and the Director of the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education (CBCSE).

The outcomes of providing evidence-based integrated student support are impressive. Student attendance and achievement improve. Schools are using the model to navigate the pandemic. And as the article notes, CBCSE has studied City Connects and found a substantial return on investment.

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Noman Khanani talks about data — and transforming education

Noman Khanani Noman Khanani never expected to work in educational data analytics. But this spring he’s part of the research team that dives deep into City Connects’ data, and he’s sharing some of the results at national conferences. 

“I had always been interested in data,” he recalls. “When I was younger, I always enjoyed math and statistics, but I never really thought of pursuing this as a career. It was just something I was good at in the classroom.” 

Khanani enrolled in graduate school at Boston University’s Educational Leadership and Policy Studies master’s degree program. He thought he would go on to work in administration. 

Then he got a job as a research assistant. 

“That was my first exposure to education research and the use of quantitative analytics and statistics to measure student learning and understand the impact of programs and interventions. This work combined my interests in statistics with working for social good.”  Continue reading

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