Sizing up the new school year

“It is calmer,” Laurie Acker, the City Connects Program in Minnesota, says of the brand new school year.

“When Covid first hit it was an emergency and there was chaos. Then last year was extremely hard for teachers and students. Now this year, there’s science and protocols. We’re following CDC guidelines. If there’s a Covid positive case, we don’t have to shut down a grade or a school. Instead, we can quarantine close contacts.”

But even in this relatively calmer phase, Acker and the City Connects Coordinators she supervises are supporting students and planning ahead.

“We’ve gotten to the point where instead of being reactive, we’re proactive. We’re able to have kids eat in lunchrooms in designated spots. Kids can take their masks off when they go outside. And at some schools, Covid testing for teachers is required,” Acker says.

Coordinators are also much more attuned to signs of anxiety, so they can see when students might need more support.

“We’re running more skills groups for students that focus on coping and calming strategies.”

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Detectives: City Connects coordinators in early education programs

News headlines keep echoing a dismal fact: across the country, children are dealing with the trauma of living through a global pandemic. 

This is true for both school-aged children and for young children ages 0 to 5. And as City Connects Coordinator Elizabeth Planje explains, working young children in preschool programs to provide services and promote healing requires a different lens.

“You do have to be a little more curious to find the root cause of what’s bothering very young children,” Planje says. She’s the coordinator at Sacred Heart School, in Lynn, Mass., as well as a therapist. At Sacred Heart, she works with students as young as 2.9 years old. “The older kids can tell you more about what’s going on, but with younger kids you have to be more of a detective.” 

This means observing, thinking, and testing out ideas across all four City Connects domains — academic, social/emotional, physical health, and family — to understand children’s needs.

Planje tells the story of a young child who screamed every time he went to the restroom. It took some reflection, but eventually Planje and the teachers theorized that the child was experiencing sensory overload. The sound of flushing was too loud for him. The solution: he now goes to the restroom wearing headphones that muffle the noise. 

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Meeting with our community partners — virtually


“Our community partners are so vital to the work of City Connects” Lynne Sullivan, City Connects’ Director of Implementation, says, “so we encourage each district to hold a community partner event each year.”

Whether it’s a breakfast in Minnesota or in Boston, these events let our partners and our staff come together to share both the work they’re doing and their goals for better serving students. They get to chat, brainstorm, and make connections.

“City Connects’ role as a convener is so important,” Sullivan says. “We want to create time for broader discussions. We want to cut through the pandemic’s isolation. And we want schools and community partners to hear directly from each other about what, specifically, they need from each other.

But in the middle of the pandemic, meeting face to face isn’t safe. So City Connects co-hosted a virtual event for our coordinators, our community partners, and the principals of public schools and Catholic schools in the Boston area.

Our co-hosts were the Boston Public Schools’ Office of Community Partnerships and the Archdiocese of Boston’s Catholic Schools Office.

“We convened everyone remotely so they could hear from each other what they’ve been doing during the pandemic,” Sullivan says, “and so they could talk about how they’re planning for the next school year.”

The event included a panel discussion featuring two principals — Efrain Toledano of Boston’s Tobin School and Beth Looney of Boston Catholic’s Mission Grammar School – explaining what they’ll need from community partners when their schools reopen in the fall.

“The principals said to the community partners, ‘Please share all your ideas for how you want to work with kids.’ ‘No idea is crazy,’ ” Sullivan says. “The principals are eager to identify the gaps in services for kids so that they can work with community partners to fill them.”

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A new City Connects Coordinator: Shannon Stamegna

Shannon StamegnaOnce upon a time, Shannon Stamegna thought she might go to law school. But after she started looking at educational programs, she found the social work program at Salem State University. 

“The description of the program and of learning to help others just matched my personality,” she says. “I also loved the idea of working with families and connecting them to community services.” 

“I think there are times when parents think it’s best to figure things out themselves, when really they would be so much better off asking for help and getting connected to community organizations that are excited to provide support.” 

Stamegna worked in community health as a licensed clinical social worker. But because of the pandemic she had been working at home, still helping people but at a distance. 

Then she heard about a job opening at City Connects. So two months ago, she jumped into a new challenge and a year-old pandemic and became the City Connects Coordinator at St. Pius V School in Lynn, Mass.  Continue reading

Tigers make the week better

City Connects Coordinator Shannon Underwood needed a way to boost students’ morale in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her students were back at Immaculate Conception Parish School in Revere, Mass., in person and full time. They were wearing masks, using hand sanitizer, and sitting behind plexiglass shields that had been attached to each of their desks. Afterschool programs had been cancelled because of Covid. And work with the school’s community partners had been curtailed.

So Underwood implemented the idea of naming a “Tiger of the Week,” a student who demonstrated excellence through service to others. Students get a certificate and a small trophy. A tiger is the school’s mascot.

“I wanted to incentivize random acts of kindness,” Underwood says.

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Coordinating for the holidays

As this difficult pandemic year ends, City Connects Coordinators are making many lists and checking them twice to ensure that families have what they need to get through the holiday season.

Across the country, coordinators are making sure that children have access to the practical, educational, and even magical resources they need to have happy holidays and a successful new year. These include: 

• coats, food stamps, rental assistance, and help for newly arrived immigrants

• tutors, bus passes, and an in-school paraprofessional to support a child with disabilities

• holiday meals and gifts as well as two Trees for Tots Christmas trees — one Minion-themed, and one book-themed – being decorated by City Connects Coordinator Gabrielle West and her colleagues at Catholic Central’s elementary school in Springfield, Ohio. The trees are being donated to two families in need. Continue reading

How City Connects Coordinators are working through the pandemic

Whether their schools are open for in-person learning or open for virtual learning, City Connects Coordinators are working to get the right services to the right child at the right time. 

In their hands, the core City Connects model remains the same, but it is being delivered in increasingly creative and flexible ways. 

One example is Zuleika Andrade, who started working as a coordinator in January. 

“Then,” she says, “Covid happened.” 

So Andrade and her school — Mission Grammar School, a Catholic school in Boston’s Roxbury community – pivoted from in-person to online education. Andrade worked with students virtually running lunch-bunch and snack groups, providing individualized support to students, and helping families navigate access to resources. 

“I was calling families and checking in to see what parents needed now that school was closed, because school provides so much, not just education, but meals, child care, social-emotional connections.”

Last month, the school reopened for in-person instruction with a new, safety-conscious look: in addition to new classrooms, a new lab, and a new ventilation system, there are signs with reminders of where to stand to be socially distant. Continue reading

Award-winning schools are changing the odds in Minneapolis


And the 2019 Changing-the-Odds Award goes to…
 

… two City Connects schools in Minneapolis: the Ascension School and St. Helena Catholic School. 

Given by, the Minneapolis Schools Finder — which tracks school performance – the Changing-the-Odds Award recognizes schools where students from low-income backgrounds are “academically outperforming the Minneapolis Public Schools average,” and/or “growing academically at a faster rate than the average.” 

Students’ success is measured by their scores on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. This year, 25 schools won the award. 

What made the difference at Ascension and St. Helena?  Continue reading