The power of partnership: City Connects and The Salem Pantry

Salem Food Bank partnership

Robyn Burns’ first day of work as the first full-time Executive Director of The Salem Pantry was March 25, 2020. 

“When I was hired prior to the shut down, I thought I was joining a small organization. I wasn’t yet thinking about the impact of a global pandemic,” Burns recalls.

The Salem Pantry had been around for thirty years as a volunteer-run organization, Burns explained to the Salem News during a video interview in April of 2020, when she and the rest of the world were forced to think about the pandemic. 

The pantry was doing a small mobile food distribution program through pop-up sites and running a backpack program in Salem’s public schools, sending kids home with backpacks full of food.

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A national conversation on supporting the whole child

The pandemic hit schools hard.

But federal Covid relief funding is giving schools an opportunity to recover and grow stronger by making strategic new investments in supporting students and helping them succeed. 

We’re excited that City Connects is part of this national conversation.

Last month, a federal summit – “From Recovery to Thriving: How the American Rescue Plan is Supporting America’s Students” – hosted by the U.S. Department of Education, brought together “education leaders, advocates, and philanthropic partners” to discuss how American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds are helping schools and students.

Among the summit speakers was Jillian Lain, Director of City Connects Midwest, which is based at Marian University’s Center for Vibrant Schools.

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Children Are Resilient: A Letter to the Editor from Dr. Mary Walsh

An April 24 article in the Boston Globe tackled the challenges educators are dealing with in the third year of the pandemic, including how to support struggling students.

“Everything I’ve trained for, everything that’s worked in the past, none of it’s working,” said Laura Messner, a middle school English language arts literacy specialist in Scituate. “I’m very worried about what’s coming down the pike if we don’t think about how we’re going to address these challenges that are not temporary challenges.”

Dr. Mary Walsh, executive director of the Center for Thriving Children and expert in developmental psychology, wrote a response to the article, focused on concrete ways to better support students and teachers.

Dr. Walsh’s letter was published last week. 

“The article “Teachers help students struggling to succeed” powerfully covers the impacts of students’ challenges. It also highlights missed opportunities for more effectively supporting student — and teacher — well-being and learning.

“Though the challenges of the current COVID-19 era are real, children are also resilient. Mental health is bolstered by a range of interventions. Mild to moderate needs can be addressed with a caring school environment; after-school programs; mentors; participation in sports, arts, or other extracurricular activities; and relationships with peers and adults, while serious mental health needs require therapeutic treatment.

“Adding more counselors and social workers to extend current strategies is unlikely to be financially viable or sufficient to meet the need. Instead, schools that create systems of support to provide every student with an individualized support plan are seeing improvements. These systems connect each child to a tailored set of resources and enrichment opportunities to address that student’s strengths and needs, drawing on resources in the school, the community, or both. These systems of “integrated student supports” are now known to improve student well-being and learning, as well as support teachers who, early research shows, are less likely to leave the profession if their school has such a system in place.”

What Dr. Walsh conveyed in her letter reflects the City Connects practice, and its evidence of positive short- and long-term impacts on student learning and thriving. To learn more about the City Connects model, click here and to learn more about best practices for integrated student support go here.

A City Connects Coordinator shares her superpower: asking people for help

Student painting from a “Paint and Sip” event at Southbridge Academy

“People want to help. All you have to do is ask,” Kelly Moulin says. 

Moulin is the City Connects coordinator at Southbridge Academy in Southbridge, Mass., and she is exceptionally good at asking for help and inspiring people to say yes.

Southbridge Academy is a PBIS school — meaning the school provides Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports – that has 40 students in grades 6 to 12 who have individual educational plans or who need more support.

Because the school community is so small, and Moulin isn’t shy, one thing she does is ask students for their input. Moulin sends out student interest surveys to get guidance from the kids on a number of issues.

“The top three things that the students listed on their interest survey were music, sports, and art,” Moulin says. Unfortunately, Southbridge Academy doesn’t have a full-time art teacher so Moulin asked the part-time teacher to help. “We did an age-appropriate version of ‘Brushes and Beverages’. We call it a ‘Paint and Sip’ party, and we provide soda, popcorn, and chips and free canvases and paint and brushes for the kids.”

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Giving Back: Daniel Triana Alvarado joins the Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children

Daniel Triana Alvarado was 7 years old when his family moved from Mexico to Westborough, Mass., where he began a journey through public education that prepared him for and led him to the Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children, the home of City Connects.

Westborough, Triana recalls, was a town with resources for families and students. In high school, Triana had a guidance counselor, Steven Favulli, who talked to him and his family about college.

“My parents still talk about how important Mr. Favulli was,” Triana says. “He made my parents feel like they had a grasp of what was going on in school because he spoke Spanish, and he took the time to help them understand.” 

Triana enrolled in Worcester State University (WSU) where he decided to major in business administration, attracted by the range of doors the degree promised to open.

“What did I get out of going to Worcester State University?” Triana says, musing about his college years. “Opportunities.”

These weren’t typical opportunities. Triana was working full time in college, so he couldn’t participate in internships. And he hadn’t developed career aspirations based on seeing the careers of his parents or of family friends. Instead, his opportunities came in the form of personal connections.

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Community in action: the Edison School connects with Boston College athletes

When Irina Shumway started working as a City Connects coordinator at Boston’s Thomas A. Edison K8 School last October, she felt “like a new kid in school.” The best way to make a new kid feel welcome is to be embraced by the community. 

The Boston College athletic department did just that. 

Part of Shumway’s role as a Coordinator is reconnecting with community partners who bring services and enrichment programs to City Connects schools, including Boston College’s student athletes.

After Shumway arrived, she made two connections: restarting a pen pal program and reaching out to the Eagle football team. 

In the pen pal program, Edison students in 12 classes write to Boston College athletes and the athletes respond. Next month, the kids and the college students will meet each other and put faces to the names on the letters. Fortunately, transportation won’t be a barrier because it’s easy to walk from the Edison School to Boston College.

Shumway also connected with Joshua Beekman, Boston College’s Director of Football Initiatives.

“Joshua said, I have these football players, and they would love to do something,” Shumway said. “We didn’t know exactly what it would look like. We thought we’d have the athletes come play football with the kids during recess.”

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Making connections in Poughkeepsie

City Connects has launched in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a small city with local challenges and rich cultural resources it is eager to share with its students. 

Joining Salem, Mass., and other cities, Poughkeepsie created a Children’s Cabinet that is part of a national network of cabinets based at Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab.

Co-chaired by school Superintendent Eric Jay Rosser and Mayor Rob Rolison, the goal of the cabinet is to create “a community where all children and youth thrive and have equitable opportunities to reach their full potential.”

For Poughkeepsie, achieving this work means addressing local challenges. The city is home to racial and economic segregation. And an estimated 22.7 percent of residents live below the poverty line, according to the school district.

Another challenge for Poughkeepsie, according to municipal officials, is that the city is “resource rich” and “systems poor.” There are, in other words, abundant social and cultural resources. Poughkeepsie is investing $4 million in its 18 parks. Local higher education neighbors include the Culinary Institute of America, Marist College, SUNY New Paltz, and Dutchess Community College. There are dozens of cultural organizations. And while the pandemic has been devastating, it has also inspired new civic ideas and projects.

What’s missing is a way to bring these resources to students. 

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Building on a career in school counseling, Jennifer Bouckaert joins City Connects

When Jennifer Bouckaert began her career in the public schools of Southbridge, Mass., as a school adjustment counselor, she saw that the schools and the students were overwhelmed.

“Students were struggling behaviorally. There weren’t a lot of structures or systems in place to support them. We didn’t have preventative or proactive procedures,” she recalls.

“We were firefighting. We weren’t problem-solving and getting kids what they needed.”

 In 2016, Southbridge’s public schools were taken over by officials from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, who put the school system into receivership, citing years of “persistently low student performance” as well as the fact that “Since 2011, seven individuals have served as superintendent, and there has been a similar level of turnover in other leadership positions in the district.”

Massachusetts, the Department said, had provided years of assistance and resources to Southbridge, “but the district-led efforts did not improve student performance significantly.”

Bouckaert worked with her Southbridge schools colleagues to build new systems and structures. They partnered with the Center for Behavioral Education and Research to implement the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program or PBIS.

“The goal was to help build the capacity of the teachers and school staff to create an environment where all students would thrive. We developed a system of positive acknowledgement where students were praised for what they did well and retaught expectations when necessary. This was the beginning of creating a positive, proactive climate and culture.” 

Continue reading “Building on a career in school counseling, Jennifer Bouckaert joins City Connects”
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