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

City Connects has a powerful impact on reading

Students in City Connects schools tend to be stronger readers, according to a number of studies on City Connects’ impact that show similar, positive results. Here’s some of what the research has found:

• City Connects students receive better report card scores in reading

• Former City Connects students outperform peers from comparison schools on statewide tests in English Language Arts

English language learners (ELL) experienced significantly larger benefits than non-ELL students.

• Students who experienced an additional year of City Connects performed better on statewide reading tests than students who missed out on that year.

Immigrant students who experienced City Connects significantly outperformed immigrant students who never experienced the intervention on both reading achievement test scores.

• For Catholic school students who take the standardized Stanford 10 Achievement Test, the reading achievement growth rate over time was significantly higher for students in City Connects compared to their comparison school peers.

Learn more about City Connects’ students’ reading outcomes in our 2016 Progress Report.

City Connects in Early Education Settings

Adapting City Connects for preschool classrooms took careful thought.

“We had to ask how we could be true to our framework and adapt it for early childhood,” Patrice DiNatale, City Connects’ director of new practice, says, “We spent considerable amounts of time talking to early childhood experts.”

In 2009, City Connects received funding from the Better Way Foundation to implement its model in early childhood programs in Catholic schools.

In 2012, City Connects was set up at Catholic Charities’ Nazareth Child Care Center, a freestanding early child care center in Jamaica Plain. Currently, City Connects is in early education settings in five states, a total of 38 public school classrooms and 19 Catholic school classrooms. Continue reading

City Connects Goes to High School


Chaminade Julienne’s Principal John Marshall; Marcus Colvin, a teacher; and Assistant Principal Greg Mueller at the National Youth-At-Risk Conference

City Connects began in 2001 as an intervention in elementary schools. The program brought the right services to the right child at the right time in K-5 or K-8 schools.

Since then, City Connects has grown to serve students from preschool to community college.

The very first adaptation of City Connects put the program in a high school, the Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School, in Dayton, Ohio, in the 2010-11 school year.

“We wanted to keep the frameworks of City Connects, the core components,” Patrice DiNatale explains. She’s the director of new practice for City Connects. “How do we do that in a high school where they see six, seven teachers?”

City Connects’ core practice remained the same: assess the strengths and needs of every student at the high school and connect to them to services and enrichment opportunities. Site coordinators connect to students and talk to them — and they talk formally and informally with teachers. It’s a matter of getting a feel for a school, of knowing who might need a kind word and who needs a long talk or something to eat. Continue reading