Confidence, competence, and care: building social-emotional skills in Minneapolis

When C.J. McGowan became the City Connects Coordinator at Ascension Catholic School, she saw students who had many needs — and also many strengths.

“I saw a Catholic school in the north side of Minneapolis, which is the toughest side of the city, probably of the whole Twin Cities in terms of crime and poverty,” McGowan said recalling her early days at Ascension.

“There were a handful of kids who had gone through trauma. The trauma of immigrating. The trauma of being poor and not being able to afford food on a regular basis. There were academic needs and some intense behavioral health needs. And yet, there were a ton of resilient kids doing their best and doing pretty well.”

She knew that — in addition to addressing students’ comprehensive needs — building on strengths and generating feelings of competence and confidence could change the way these students saw themselves as learners and could help them thrive. So that is what she did. Continue reading

A backpack and hope: third graders in Brockton help homeless students

While we are proud of the work that City Connects coordinators do to help homeless students, we are even more proud of the work that third graders at Trinity Catholic Academy in Brockton, Mass., are doing to help their peers.

The third graders packed backpacks full of school supplies for other Brockton children who are in the third and fourth grade and are homeless.

“Remember miracles can happen. Dream big. Work hard,” one Trinity Catholic third grader wrote in a note to a child who will receive a backpack. Continue reading

Community partner breakfast in Minnesota: eat, play, connect

City Connects is growing in Minnesota. But the program isn’t just getting bigger — serving over 2,000 students across 10 schools with 13,284 services — it’s also getting better connected.

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The heart of City Connects’ model is connecting children to services. But again and again, we’ve seen that this also means forging connections among adults. That might mean connecting an immigrant parent to a health provider or having a funder hear from a principal.

To illustrate and capitalize on the power of these connections, Minnesota Program Manager Laurie Acker organized a community partner breakfast where she skipped the usual PowerPoint presentation and instead asked all the attendees to play a version of the classic kids’ game, Connect Four, a name that also acknowledges City Connects’ fourth anniversary in Minnesota. Continue reading

Strengths Matter Too, Positive Youth Development

Josh Richardt


What helps young people thrive?

Taking their brain’s natural “plasticity” – the ability to change and grow – and combining this with heaping doses of positive people, places, and opportunities.

Researchers call this positive youth development or PYD.

At City Connects, it’s an essential strategy in our work.

“To foster students’ full development, City Connects schools aim for their students to be healthy, caring, socially responsible, knowledgeable citizens,” Una Shannon, a Post-Doctoral fellow who works with City Connects implementation and evaluation teams, says of how we promote positive youth development.

Una Shannon

“The focus is on thriving: Building positive relationships, tapping into resilience, and providing opportunities for meaningful participation and leadership.”

In the field of adolescent development this is a vital shift. Instead of seeing “adolescents as inherently ‘at risk,’” as Richard Lerner, a Tufts University Psychology Professor and an expert on PYD, writes in a 2011 report, the PYD approach “views young people as resources to be developed…” Continue reading

From Awareness to Action in Minnesota


Laurie Acker’s experience with City Connects shows how awareness of students’ needs can lead to action.

“The big ‘A ha,’ that I had with City Connects was hearing that 65 percent of why there is an achievement gap has nothing to do with schools or teachers,” explains Acker, who has worked as both a teacher and a principal in Catholic schools.

That 65 percent statistic comes from research that found the achievement gap is significantly fueled by out-of-school factors. Now, as the Program Manager for City Connects schools in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., Acker sees those factors up close every day.

But she also sees how City Connects works with students, families, and community partners to address the many other challenges that children in the Twin Cities face. Continue reading

School Climate: a Q&A with Boston College’s Anastasia Raczek

Source: Anastasia Raczek


School climate is making headlines – and peaking the interest of researchers and policymakers. So earlier this month, we caught up with Anastasia Raczek and asked her to explain what school climate is and how it relates to City Connects’ work.

Anastasia Raczek

“School climate means lots of different things to different people. But we’re beginning to get more specific about it, and we do know a lot about what it seems to lead to,” Raczek said. As the Associate Director of Evaluation & Research, she helps lead an independent team that works to evaluate and improve City Connects. The team is based in the Center for Optimized Student Support, part of Boston College’s Lynch School of Education. 

In December, Raczek spoke at an event on school climate that was organized by the Rennie Center and co-hosted by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, MassINC, Boston University, and Boston College. Conference participants discussed the connection between school climate and student success. A related policy brief is posted here Continue reading

Community Partners: Girls on the Run Twin Cities

Sometimes a community partner provides fun, exercise, inspiration, confidence, and a chance to cheer for grown-ups. That’s the story of Girls on the Run Twin Cities, a nonprofit organization that teaches girls how to fulfill their potential, serve their communities, and run a 5K race.

Girls on the Run is just one of many community partners that City Connects works with to provide a wide range of services, from food and clothes to summer camp and enrichment programs.

“City Connects looks at the whole child,” explains Executive Director Mary Walsh. “We know it is important to build on students’ strengths and interests, as well as to address their needs. It helps students to develop confidence in ways that can support their success over the long term.”

Girls on the Run — which is currently a community partner with two, Minneapolis-based, City Connects Catholic Schools, Risen Christ and Ascension — provides enrichment and the opportunity for girls to work with adult volunteers and coaches. Girls learn to meet and exceed their own expectations – a key way to remove some of the non-academic barriers that can limit academic performance. Continue reading

Winning in Ohio

Photo Source: Our Lady of the Rosary School’s Facebook page.

Over time, the student body at Our Lady of the Rosary School changed. The Dayton, Ohio, Catholic, K-8 elementary school was serving more Latino students who are recent immigrants.

It was a shift other urban Catholic schools were seeing. And educators knew they had to adapt. Mary Walsh, City Connects’ Executive Director, was seeing the same population changes as well as the need for schools to keep up with students’ needs.

“Sustainability in the urban environment requires not only educational excellence but also cultural responsiveness to new immigrant groups in these communities, e.g., Latinos, Haitians, Cape Verdeans,” Walsh wrote in a 2011, co-authored report, “Sustaining Urban Catholic Elementary Schools An Examination of Governance Models and Funding Strategies.”

“Urban Catholic schools can and should provide a safe educational environment that is tailored to the cultural and linguistic needs and strengths of immigrant students and their families,” the report adds.  Continue reading