Sharing lessons and stories: City Connects’ Executive Director Mary Walsh

Mary Walsh, Executive Director of City Connects and the Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children (Photo: Caitlin Cunningham)

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. 

Another lesson is “Always live on the hyphen.” 

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National Governors Association highlights integrated student support

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.”

To help governors and their staff do this transformative work, the National Governors Association held a webinar on community schools and wraparound services, and invited Joan Wasser Gish to talk about integrated student support and the new National Guidelines for Integrated Student Support.

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Katie Drucker: Blending educational research and a passion for education

Katie Drucker first came to Boston College in 2000 as an undergraduate from Florida.

“I came to B.C. thinking I wanted to be a teacher,” she recalls, but she soon realized classroom work wasn’t a good fit. Instead, she discovered educational research.

Now she’s the new Senior Evaluation Researcher at the Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children, the home of City Connects.

“Not every little kid wants to be an educational researcher,” Drucker says, joking about how she came to the field. What made the difference for her was a class she took as a sophomore with Larry Ludlow, a retired professor and the former chair of the Department of Measurement, Evaluation, Statistics, and Assessment (MESA) at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development.

While she was a graduate student, Drucker was also a B.C. employee who worked for PIRLS (the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study).

“We did very high-quality, rigorous research,” Drucker explains. “Each study cycle took five years. Then we would write a giant report that was hundreds of pages. We put it out into the world, hoping policymakers would use the information to make kids’ lives better. And a lot of people did, but it took a long time.”

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From the archives: Checking in with City Connects staff

While the blog is on summer vacation, we’re sharing past posts about the many ways City Connects helps students thrive. 

This week’s roundup looks at staff members who are or have been part of City Connects, which is based at the Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children in Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development. 

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Practice and research: a conversation with Maria Theodorakakis
City Connects Blog, November 11, 2021 

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. 

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From the archives: City Connects in Ireland

While the blog is on summer vacation, we’re sharing past posts about the many ways City Connects helps students thrive. 

This week’s roundup looks at how City Connects has expanded into Ireland. 

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Ireland launches City Connects
City Connects Blog, June 11 2020

Often City Connects grows because of, well, connections. That’s what happened when Una Shannon came from Ireland to Boston College to be a postdoctoral fellow. Shannon learned about City Connects and shared our work with Eugene Wall, the president of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, Ireland, as well as sharing it with ministers from the Irish National Government.

The result: Irish educators are planning to launch a City Connects pilot program this fall in 10 Dublin schools. 

“It strikes me that any ‘school person’ who hears about City Connects tends to have an ‘aha’ moment,” Shannon says. She’s a former teacher who earned her bachelor’s degree from Mary Immaculate College. “It just makes sense to support the whole child, to have a strengths-based perspective, and to have a systemic, systematic, and sustained approach to student support that’s in rhythm with school life.” 

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From the archives: Sharing what we’re learning through papers, policy briefs, and articles

While the blog goes on summer vacation, we’ll spend the next few months sharing past posts and social media coverage about the many ways City Connects helps students thrive. 

This week’s roundup collects some of the articles, research briefs, and policy proposals published by our partners and by the Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children that share insights drawn from City Connects’ evidence-based model of integrated student support. 

The Center for Thriving Children is the home of City Connects and is based at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development. The Center “advances science, implementation, and innovation to promote healthy child and youth development, learning, and thriving.” 

These publications speak to long-standing student needs and to the ways these needs have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

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National Guidelines on Integrated Student Support


From the earliest days of the pandemic, we’ve seen how powerful it is for schools to provide integrated student support.

To share knowledge about this powerful approach, the Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children – home to City Connects — has just released the first “National Guidelines for Integrated Student Support,” a joint project of experts in research and evaluation as well as in the practice of integrating comprehensive school- and community-resources for students.

The guidelines are a “first effort to encapsulate evidence-based best practices and define what high quality implementation looks like in the day-to-day functioning of schools.”

“Our hope is that, in your hands, this knowledge will raise the standards of care and opportunity provided to our nation’s children and youth,” the guidelines’ website says.

 The need is glaring.

“Students’ learning and wellbeing are increasingly impacted by the complex challenges of our time,” the report notes, adding:

“More than a third of high school students in the United States experienced poor mental health at least most of the time during the pandemic.”

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Children Are Resilient: A Letter to the Editor from Dr. Mary Walsh

An April 24 article in the Boston Globe tackled the challenges educators are dealing with in the third year of the pandemic, including how to support struggling students.

“Everything I’ve trained for, everything that’s worked in the past, none of it’s working,” said Laura Messner, a middle school English language arts literacy specialist in Scituate. “I’m very worried about what’s coming down the pike if we don’t think about how we’re going to address these challenges that are not temporary challenges.”

Dr. Mary Walsh, executive director of the Center for Thriving Children and expert in developmental psychology, wrote a response to the article, focused on concrete ways to better support students and teachers.

Dr. Walsh’s letter was published last week. 

“The article “Teachers help students struggling to succeed” powerfully covers the impacts of students’ challenges. It also highlights missed opportunities for more effectively supporting student — and teacher — well-being and learning.

“Though the challenges of the current COVID-19 era are real, children are also resilient. Mental health is bolstered by a range of interventions. Mild to moderate needs can be addressed with a caring school environment; after-school programs; mentors; participation in sports, arts, or other extracurricular activities; and relationships with peers and adults, while serious mental health needs require therapeutic treatment.

“Adding more counselors and social workers to extend current strategies is unlikely to be financially viable or sufficient to meet the need. Instead, schools that create systems of support to provide every student with an individualized support plan are seeing improvements. These systems connect each child to a tailored set of resources and enrichment opportunities to address that student’s strengths and needs, drawing on resources in the school, the community, or both. These systems of “integrated student supports” are now known to improve student well-being and learning, as well as support teachers who, early research shows, are less likely to leave the profession if their school has such a system in place.”

What Dr. Walsh conveyed in her letter reflects the City Connects practice, and its evidence of positive short- and long-term impacts on student learning and thriving. To learn more about the City Connects model, click here and to learn more about best practices for integrated student support go here.

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