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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 “Expanding our mission”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”