As immigration to the United States continues, schools are enrolling immigrant students and working to meet their needs.
Providing this support to students and their families is a core strength of the City Connects model. This is especially true at City Connects schools which are located in Boston, Springfield, Minneapolis, and other areas with immigrant communities. In these communities, City Connects Coordinators have been assessing students’ strengths and needs and connecting them to services, supports, and enrichment programs.
One important result is better outcomes for students. As City Connects’ 2022 Progress Report explains:
“Immigrant students who experienced City Connects significantly outperformed immigrant students who never experienced the intervention on both reading and math achievement test scores. City Connects also narrowed achievement gaps between immigrant students and their English-proficient peers.”
This finding comes from research conducted by Eric Dearing, a Boston College professor at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development.
In a recent conversation Dearing noted, “We certainly have immigrants who are pulled to the United States who have high levels of education. But we also have many immigrants who come who are being pushed to the United States from countries that are experiencing war, trauma, and poverty.”
Last year, thanks to our partnership with Marian University’s Center for Vibrant Schools, City Connects launched in 30 public and charter schools in Indiana.
This year we are in 80 public, charter, and non-public Indiana schools.
This exciting growth has created more opportunities to serve more students – and it has expanded City Connects’ community of practitioners.
Among Indiana’s new City Connects schools are non-public parochial schools as well as nondenominational Christian and Islamic schools and a private school without any religious affiliation.
This growth has been driven in part by Covid-19 relief funds – Emergency Assistance for Non-Public Schools – from the U.S. Department of Education that were given to schools where at least 20 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch. In some of Indiana’s City Connects schools, more than 40 percent of students receive these lunch subsidies, and in other schools more than 80 percent do.
This crucial support comes at a time when schools in Indiana – and across the country – are coping with learning loss, absenteeism, and students who are struggling to behave in age-appropriate ways. Indiana is also taking a hard look at its NAEP scores, to understand the pandemic’s impact on student learning.
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.”
As City Connects expands in Indianapolis, Ind., we’re learning more about the power of local innovations.
Last September, City Connects launched in three Indianapolis schools, and we added two new features: a unique funding source and partnership with Marian University.
“I learned about City Connects years ago when I implemented this program in Springfield, Ohio, at a pre-K to 12 Catholic school system,” Dr. Ken Britt says. He is the Senior Vice President and Dean of Klipsch Educators College at Marian University. “I wanted to bring the program to Indiana because I believe that, coupled with our focus on teacher and leadership development, comprehensive student support can be a game-changer for young people. And there is no better program than City Connects.”
Frequently, school districts pay for City Connects using their own funds. Other districts have philanthropic partners who pay for some or all the costs. Indianapolis is unique because it’s the first district to use state funds.
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.
Last school year, in the middle of the pandemic, getting services to students was hard, but in Minnesota Helen Keller Intl, a City Connects community partner, persisted.
“In a normal year, Helen Keller goes into schools and conducts eye screenings,” Laurie Acker, the City Connects Program Manager in Minnesota, says. “They also have an eye doctor who will give a complete eye exam if a student needs glasses.”
Last year, Helen Keller Intl brought its services to local Catholic Schools implementing the City Connects model.
“Of course it was a little bit more challenging because we had to wipe everything down and we could only have two kids in the room at one time. The coordinators were really instrumental in facilitating this process.”
Sometimes this meant getting reluctant students excited about new eyeglasses. “We try to help them feel good,” Acker says. Other times it’s a matter of sharing in the excitement.
And for one student, it was a matter of doing detective work.
“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.”
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.