Back to school: what we’ve learned, how we’re moving forward

Mary E. Walsh
Mary E. Walsh

It’s September and going back to school – in-person or on Zoom – is an obstacle course of trying to keep students safe, keep them learning, and keep them connected to their school communities and to essential services and supports, as City Connects does. 

“The earth is moving under everyone right now,” Mary Walsh, the Executive Director of City Connects says. “But what we’ve seen is the value of having the City Connects system. It creates a record for every child, so we know the kids, and we know what their strengths and needs are.” 

Back in March, when the pandemic hit, City Connects moved its system of integrated student support online. City Connects’ Coordinators ran groups, sat in on classes, and reached out to families.

During late spring and summer, City Connects staff took stock and began preparing for the fall. Now, the City Connects system is stronger and more responsive to the pandemic’s demands and to the needs of students and families. 

Here are some of the things City Connects has been learning and doing. 

“We were able to more clearly see the impact of the services that kids had and then lost because of the pandemic,” Walsh says. “Especially services like dental vans that brought dental care right to schools. Even the New York Times is reporting on this. There are some services we could move online, but we’re being reminded how important in-school services like dentistry are.”  Continue reading

Happy Fourth of July!

Enjoy the holiday weekend! And have a great summer! The blog will be back in September.

Discussing the impact of COVID-19 on the Gateways Cities podcast


COVID-19 has hit students, families, and schools hard. But City Connects is working hard to keep students connected to education and supportive services.

To share this story, Joan Wasser Gish, Ellen Wingard, and Stephanie Sanabria — joined Ben Forman on an episode of the Gateways podcast, presented by local nonprofit think tank, MassINC.

“It feels like in this moment when the disruption caused by COVID is making inequities so palpable, and is lifting the lid on how critical family circumstances really are to children’s readiness to engage in learning, and thrive and have choices in life, this kind of work is something that’s going to become more and more important.” Wasser Gish says. She’s the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Center for Optimized Student Support, which is the home of City Connects and part of the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College.

“In Salem, if you interviewed principals right now, they would tell you they wouldn’t have known what to do in their first few weeks of closures if they didn’t have their City Connects Coordinators at their virtual side to help them pivot and use the student support system that we had within the buildings [and shift them] to a virtual world,” Ellen Wingard, the City Connects Program Manager in Salem, Mass., says.

“[Because of] having the City Connects model, where we have this tiering system — we review every child in the fall — so we have insight as to who our children are, who our families are,” Stephanie Sanabria, a City Connects Coordinator in Springfield, Mass. says.

To hear the rest of the conversation, please listen to the podcast.

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

Managing trauma so students can succeed

City Connects has expanded. We’ve launched in the Success Academy, a trauma-informed school that’s part of the public school system in Jamestown, N.Y.

“Success Academy serves students in grades five through ten who have experienced some school avoidant behavior due to either trauma or mental health needs that have manifested as difficulties doing well in school,” Maureen Diehl, the City Connects Program Manager, explains. 

“These students are invited – not required – to attend our unique program, which has smaller class sizes and staff who are there to focus on students’ social emotional and behavioral health.” 

“The goal is to get students on the right track and help them move back to their home schools.” 

The school, which opened last fall and serves 50 students, is part of School Superintendent Brett Apthorpe’s effort to “combat the losses district students were experiencing due to the 72 percent poverty rate and every day poor living standards,” the Jamestown Gazette reports, adding, “The District has an unacceptable absentee rate as well.”  Continue reading

Ireland launches City Connects

Often City Connects grows because of, well, connections. That’s what happened when Una Shannon came from Ireland to Boston College to be a postdoctoral fellow. Shannon learned about City Connects and shared our work with Eugene Wall, the president of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, Ireland, as well as sharing it with ministers from the Irish National Government.

The result: Irish educators are planning to launch a City Connects pilot program this fall in 10 Dublin schools. 

“It strikes me that any ‘school person’ who hears about City Connects tends to have an ‘aha’ moment,” Shannon says. She’s a former teacher who earned her bachelor’s degree from Mary Immaculate College. “It just makes sense to support the whole child, to have a strengths-based perspective, and to have a systemic, systematic, and sustained approach to student support that’s in rhythm with school life.”  Continue reading

COVID-19 exposes education’s flaws – and opportunities

As schools struggle through the fallout of COVID-19, there is a lot to worry about — but there’s also a chance to innovate by implementing many of the strategies we use at City Connects. 

The immediate concern — as A. Brooks Bowden and Rebecca Davis write in “With fewer funds and greater needs, schools should pursue cost-effectiveness strategies,” an article published by Brookings – is that schools are in academic and financial jeopardy. 

“Projected economic impacts of COVID-19 on student outcomes is huge,” the article says. “Recent projections indicate that student learning loss may be one-third to two-thirds larger than what students normally lose during summer slump. In addition to learning loss, students are disconnected from the stability of school, peer networks, and access to school-based supports, such as mental health services, school nurses, and school food.” 

“Budget cuts make matters even worse, driving up the need to consider cost effectiveness in finding solutions.”  Continue reading

A message from Mary Walsh

We stand with our sisters and brothers across the country who are seeking justice and meaningful change. The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many others are the result of racial injustice that plagues our society. City Connects was developed to lift children over barriers to their success – especially in low-income urban school districts. This mission continues to guide our work and our conviction that with the right support, every child can thrive. We are deeply invested in promoting justice, supporting one another, and amplifying our voices against all instances of oppression.

— Mary Walsh, Executive Director of City Connects