Anna Hamilton: from graduate assistant to City Connects staff member

 As a college student at Tulane University, Anna Hamilton was trying to decide whether she wanted to study education or psychology.

“I was very interested in working with children in some capacity and early on as an undergraduate, I got involved in psychological research working in a lab where I studied prejudice and stigma,” Hamilton recalls.

Outside the lab, Hamilton worked with children, leading social-emotional skills groups at an elementary school. She also worked as an intern at a family resource center, providing trauma-informed care for children and families who were involved with Louisiana’s Department of Child and Family Services.

For Hamilton, working with children won out, and she enrolled in Boston College to earn a master’s degree in mental health counseling.

“I thought I was leaving the research world behind,” she says.

But in 2016, a few weeks after she started her master’s program, Hamilton started working as a graduate assistant at City Connects and stepped back into the research world.

Continue reading

Reflecting on the past and forging a brighter future

For the new year, we are reflecting on where we’ve been and looking forward to what’s ahead. Writing in our current newsletter, Mary Walsh, the Executive Director of City Connects, says:

“From all of us at City Connects, I wish you and your loved ones a happy, healthy new year. 2021 has been another challenging year in schools for students, for families, and for staff.”

“Despite many pandemic-related challenges, Coordinators are moving mountains to support children and families. We are implementing in an ever-expanding set of schools. City Connects is currently delivering supports, services, and enrichment opportunities to tens of thousands of students in the United States and in Ireland, and the U.S. Department of Education has featured City Connects in a number of its publications.”

This growth has happened in Massachusetts and in Indiana. City Connects has been praised in Ireland; and the Department of Education points to us as an example of an evidence-based model of integrated student support.

Continue reading

Responding to a crisis with integrated student support – a research article

research articleIn the middle of the pandemic, schools with systems of integrated student support (ISS) had an advantage. They were able to pivot to meet the rapidly changing needs of students and families.

A newly released research article — “Leveraging Integrated Student Support to Identify and Address COVID-19-Related Needs for Students, Families, and Teachers” — explains how one evidence-based ISS system, City Connects, has helped schools meet students’ needs. 

A key theme: systemic support matters. 

The research draws on several sources: surveys of City Connects Coordinators conducted in the spring of 2020 in 94 schools across six states; a database of the student services these coordinators provided; and on coordinators’ estimates of the three most common challenges schools faced when they were closed.

Published by AERA Open, the article was written by Courtney Pollack, former Senior Researcher on City Connects Data and Evaluation Team, and now a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a researcher at MIT; Maria Theodorakakis, Senior Manager of Clinical Practice and Research; and Mary Walsh, City Connects’ Executive Director.  Continue reading

Schools are on the front lines of the nation’s mental health crisis: integrated student support is a key strategy

A new opinion piece for the education website K-12 Dive discusses how schools are doing more to address students’ comprehensive needs in the middle of the pandemic. The article highlights the positive role of evidence-based, integrated student support approaches, including City Connects.

In the article, author Joan Wasser Gish — Director of Systemic Impact at Boston College’s Center for Optimized Student Support, the home of City Connects — writes that educators have been expecting the mental health crisis caused by the pandemic.

Wasser Gish writes:

“Budget decisions made long before children and youth returned to in-person, full-time school anticipated that children undergoing a year and a half of isolation, deprivation, stress — and in many cases, trauma and grief — would return to school with a range of social, emotional and mental health needs.”

School districts in different cities are taking different approaches.

Continue reading

Practice and research: a conversation with Maria Theodorakakis

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. 

She has stayed involved through college and graduate school (she earned a PhD in counseling psychology at Boston College). And today she’s City Connects’ Senior Manager of Clinical Practice and Research. She also works as a child psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Focusing on both practice and research has given Theodorakakis a unique view of City Connects.

Continue reading

Expanding our mission

602A5608
 
Across the country, school staff, families, and students are entering another year that’s sure to be full of unexpected challenges and uncertainties. To promote healing and each child’s potential, it is critically important that we meet this moment by redoubling our focus on connections with children and families and on the unique strengths and needs that each student brings with them to school.

That’s why here at the Boston College Center for Optimized Student Support, we are widening our mission and expanding into more school districts in Indiana, Massachusetts, and New York. As part of this expanded mission, we will serve as the nation’s hub for the science, implementation, innovation, and information of promoting learning and healthy child development through the effective integration of whole-child supports.

For more than ten years, we have been part of a growing national movement to bring insights from the sciences of child development and learning to advance “whole child” approaches. Because of these insights, we know that students’ in-school performance is affected by factors that exist out of school. We know that hunger, homelessness, trauma, and stress affect a child’s readiness to learn. We also know that every child is unique, with strengths and opportunities to grow that should be met individually, rather than with one-size-fits all solutions.  Continue reading

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. 

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading