Boston: Bridging the distance with student support

Although the spread of coronavirus has closed the Boston Public Schools’ buildings, City Connects Coordinators are still at work. 

Coordinators helped close the schools. They put together resource lists for families, helped teachers set up websites, and distributed laptops to students. Then the coordinators leapt with Boston’s schools into the world of online education and on-going student support. 

“Everybody is learning as we go,” City Connects Program Manager Sara Davey says of the coordinators who continue to keep students connected to supports and services. “The thing I’m most proud of is how quickly everybody jumped into action.” 

Losing daily, in-person contact with students is challenging, but the coordinators are building on the hard work they’ve been doing throughout the school year.

“I think the heart of everything our coordinators do is building relationships,” Davey says, explaining that coordinators’ ongoing connections to students, families, and administrators have helped them thrive in the virtual landscape. 

“Our coordinators have gotten very creative in the ways that they are doing outreach to students and families.” This includes jumping into a web-based Google Classroom site to communicate with families as well as providing a wide range of other kinds of assistance:  Continue reading

Taking action in the time of Coronavirus

To meet the historic challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, City Connects staff are rapidly translating the pillars of City Connects practice into systematic approaches that serve students and families and support teachers. 

“Many families of the students in our City Connects schools will be especially vulnerable to the worst effects of this crisis,” City Connects’ Executive Director Mary Walsh said last week. “For families whom we serve, this pandemic means unexpected unemployment, heightened food insecurity, lack of child care, and sudden loss of stability provided by the everyday routine of school.” 

To address these complex and layered disruptions, City Connects’ Program Managers and Coordinators are using existing and newly forged systemic approaches to better understand and respond to the comprehensive needs of each individual student both immediately and over the long term. Continue reading

Our statement on COVID-19

Mary E. Walsh
Mary Walsh, Executive Director of City Connects

Because the students and families we serve will be especially hard hit by the educational, social, and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for strong and effective approaches to student support has never been greater. To help meet this need, the Boston College Center for Optimized Student Support will continue to bring you information and best practices relevant to effectively serving children and families before, during, and after this crisis. The Center’s flagship program, City Connects, is continuing its commitment to provide high-quality, evidence-driven student support in this challenging time.

As schools across the country shut down due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, City Connects Coordinators are responding to the needs of students and families impacted by this ever-changing crisis. 

“Many families of the students in our City Connects schools will be especially vulnerable to the worst effects of this crisis,” said Mary Walsh, our Executive Director. “For families whom we serve, this pandemic means unexpected unemployment, heightened food insecurity, lack of child care, and sudden loss of stability provided by the everyday routine of school.”

City Connects Coordinators have been hard at work preparing for school closures. Across all our sites, the most immediate and critical need is food for families and children who rely on school breakfast and lunch programs. Every city in which we work has found different ways to address food provision for students. In Dayton, Ohio, for example, coordinators are helping with a drive-by pick up service at school so families can easily obtain packages of food. In Minneapolis, City Connects Program Manager Laurie Acker and her team have helped coordinate regular delivery of boxes containing food to bus stops. They are also letting students and families know which restaurants in the Minneapolis area are offering free food for those affected by school or business closures. Continue reading

Healthy development for every child

At City Connects, healthy childhood development is a rich mosaic.

We don’t just look at children’s health or grades. Instead, drawing on decades of scientific research, we look at four domains and what we call the four C’s

“Research tells us that development isn’t linear – and that development in one area depends on development in multiple other areas,” Claire Foley, City Connects’ Associate Director, explains. 

Foley points to the foundational childhood development research of Urie Bronfenbrenner and Pamela Morris as well as work being done by Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child and other researchers. Building on this scientific base, the City Connects model looks at how each child is developing across four domains: academic, social/emotional, physical health, and family. 

But we don’t stop there. 

“In addition to the four domains, we have broader principles that translate scientific insights into practice. We call them the four C’s, meaning we promote healthy child development by providing services that are comprehensive, customized, coordinated, and continuous,” Foley says.  Continue reading

A City Connects Coordinator goes above and beyond

City Connects Coordinators don’t just match students up with community partners – our coordinators also invest in making these relationships flourish. 

That’s the work that City Connects Coordinator Madeline Gillespie does at Mendell Elementary School in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. Gillespie has worked with the nonprofit mentoring organization Strong Women Strong Girls (SWSG) to ensure that the program has a positive impact on students.

“We have a robust program with about 25 girls in grades three, four and five who meet with six mentors who are students from Simmons College,” Gillespie says. 

Through the SWSG curriculum, the girls and their mentors learn and talk about strong women and girls. At the Mendell school, this conversation has included both famous girls such as Marsai Martin, the 15-year-old, African American actor who appears on the television show black-ish – as well as less-well-known women such as Jasmine Cho, an Asian-American baker who is committed to social justice.
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Finding reading resources that are just down the hall


When Joy Richmond-Smith looked at the data she collects on all her school’s students, she saw that some young children were struggling with reading.

“They weren’t making progress in meeting the benchmarks,” Richmond-Smith says. She is the City Connects Coordinator at the Saltonstall School in Salem, Mass. “We have some in-school supports, but we’re also always thinking about ways to increase the ways that kids practice reading and creating more chances for them to be read to.” 


The younger children were already getting extra reading support from specialists, but Richmond-Smith saw a way to add another support. She turned to some local readers: older students in her K-8 school who know first-hand that schoolwork can be hard.  Continue reading

Tapping data and community partners to help English Language Learners

In Massachusetts and Minnesota, City Connects staff are helping schools meet the needs of English Language Learners (ELL). 

“In Salem, the predominant language that’s spoken, other than English, is Spanish,” according to Ellen Wingard the City Connects Program Manager in Salem, Mass., where 31.2 percent of the district’s 3,620 students speak a first language that isn’t English, and 13.2 percent are ELL students.

“We also have a pretty large Portuguese speaking population and a growing Albanian population and some of our students speak Arabic.”

So, when Salem’s language acquisition teams meet monthly to review the needs and progress of ELL students, City Connects Coordinators are at the table. 

“The coordinators are prepared to talk about any mitigating factors for language development,” Wingard explains. “They share critical data about a student’s family, health, and social/emotional wellbeing.”  Continue reading

Dreaming bigger with City Connects

Josiah Quincy School students

“We love mentoring,” City Connects Coordinator Will Osier of Boston’s Josiah Quincy School says. 

That’s why every week on Wednesdays, 20 girls from the Quincy School in grades eight through 11 go into the heart of downtown Boston and meet with mentors at the online furniture and home goods company Wayfair.

City Connects works in the Quincy Upper school serving students in grades 6-12. In the upper grades, the City Connects model helps older children dream big. And just as they do in elementary schools, Osier and other coordinators working with older students provide individualized services and opportunities that meet students’ strengths and address their needs. Coordinators engage students in designing personalized plans and connect them to resources, relationships, and opportunities that can boost their college and career aspirations.

The Wayfair mentorship program is one good example. It was launched last month by one of the Quincy School’s community partners, the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston. Continue reading