Myriam Villalobos has so much optimism and energy that she has turned chronic absenteeism into an opportunity for building a stronger school community. And last month, she was awarded a $20,000 grant from the Boston Public School system to do this work.
“I am a teacher. I am a therapist. I am not a grant writer,” Villalobos, the City Connects Coordinator at Boston’s Maurice J. Tobin School says. “I have never asked for money, so I had to learn about the process, and I was fascinated by that.”
Her approach was to think globally about the big picture – and to do so with compassion.
The Tobin had 66 students who missed more than 20 percent of school. Another 144 students missed 10 percent. Chronic absenteeism is typically defined as missing at least 10 percent of school.
“Sometimes we are very critical about why parents decide to keep their children at home. But there are many social issues there. There’s inequality, transportation, and parents who don’t speak English and need their children to be translators. There are also parents who get sick and don’t have anyone they can ask to bring their children to school.
During a career that has stretched from teaching to becoming a principal, Beth Looney has seen education and City Connects from all sides.
Now, Looney is City Connects’ Senior Manager for Coaching and Data-Informed Practice, and she’s working hard to change outcomes for students.
“I taught elementary and middle school and special education,” Looney recalls of her early career, “and the longer I was in the classroom, the more I noticed the challenges in education. I felt powerless in doing all that I wanted to for students. I also recognized that it’s hard for one person to change the system.
“I wanted to be able to do something bigger in education.”
To improve outcomes for kids, the City Connects model looks at four domains: academics, social/emotional behavior, physical health, and family.
Our focus on family is essential because parents and caregivers are key partners in students’ development and success. Families help City Connects Coordinators understand what students’ strengths and needs are.
As our 2022 Progress Report explains, “City Connects believes that schools are the epicenter of support for children and families.” Putting services and supports in schools makes them easier to access. And we know that supporting adults who may need help getting their children winter clothes or health care services also helps students. In short, when a family is doing well, children are more likely to do well.
One example of a coordinator’s work with a student and his family is Julian, a student featured in our progress report. A fourth grader in a City Connects school, Julian had two strengths: his academics and his mother’s engagement with his school.
However, “At the same time, Julian experienced significant difficulty with behavioral regulation in the classroom. He frequently disrupted lessons and activities, which not only impacted Julian’s ability to learn, but presented a challenge for his teacher and his peers.”
City Connects is in the news again, featured in a Boston Globe op-ed by Kerry Donahue about how schools can help students recover from the educational and social-emotional losses caused by the pandemic.
“Urgently addressing the needs of students is critical for ensuring the generation of children impacted by the pandemic do not suffer long-term harm,” Donahue writes. She’s the chief strategy officer at the Boston Schools Fund, “a non-profit organization that advances educational equity through opportunity and access to high-quality schools.”
These areas are evidence-based literacy instruction, high-dosage tutoring, coherent wraparound services, and increased operations capacity.
As Donahue notes, students’ “increased mental health and social-emotional needs” are “straining schools and districts that were never designed to manage this volume or concentration of need. Expecting schools that are already trying to address major academic gaps, while managing continued COVID disruptions for students and staff, to also build an effective wraparound service delivery operation defies logic.”
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.
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.
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.
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.