Grief and Loss in Minnesota: Helping students face painful transitions

For many students, the challenges of the pandemic have included coping with unexpected grief. 

“What we’re seeing, especially since COVID-19, are a lot of families going through separations and divorce, and families who are experiencing the loss of family members,” McKenzie Bergman says. She’s the City Connects Coordinator at Blessed Trinity Catholic School in Richfield, Minn. 

Blessed Trinity is a small school, with 215 students, where the loss of a loved one and even a handful of divorces can ripple through the school community. 

“For so many of our families, everything is set up like a house of cards, just stacked perfectly. Pull out any one card, though, and it all falls apart. That’s what we’re seeing when families go through these changes.” 

For students, loss and grief can trigger larger challenges like depression, social withdrawal, and eating disorders. Grades and attendance can drop. Some students act out. A newly single parent may need support in finding a job. 

Bergman’s response as a coordinator is to help children and support families. A key first step, she says, is listening.

“Everyone’s an expert on their own lives,” Bergman explains. That’s why it’s crucial to help children find their voice as they grieve. “You really have to give students the opportunity to tell their story. You can’t help them if you don’t know what they’re experiencing.”

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Happy Thanksgiving

Enjoy the holiday!

City Connects ‘eliminates barriers to receiving a great education’

City Connects is based on a powerful principle: Help students thrive in school, particularly in high-poverty areas, by addressing the out-of-school barriers that students face. 

We do this by looking at four domains: academics, social-emotional well being, physical health, and family. 

One key outcome of this work is that students do better academically. As our 2022 Progress Report explains, research findings show that:

“At the elementary level, students enrolled in schools implementing City Connects experience better academic outcomes than their peers, including improved effort, better grades, better attendance, and improved performance on state tests. In middle and high school, students who previously experienced City Connects in elementary school outperform comparison peers on indicators of educational success and life chances, including positive impact on retention in grade, chronic absenteeism, and high school dropout.”

We see this academic success in many City Connects schools. One example is Avondale Meadows Middle School in Indianapolis, Ind.. 

“I just try to figure out where the needs are,” Chatarra Moreland, a City Connects Coordinator at Avondale Meadows, said last week in a Fox 59 news story. “I put resources in place for the family to try to eliminate needs or barriers they may have to receiving a great education at Avondale.”

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Growing by leaps and bounds in Indiana

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.

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Beth Looney sees City Connects from many angles

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.”

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Dayton Flight: a community partnership that connects students to African-American men

Keisha Anderson is working to engage more African-American men and bring them into her school.

“I want to open school spaces to dads, uncles, male mentors, pastors, barbers, whoever has a positive male influence in students’ lives. I am opening doors so they can come into our building.”

Anderson is the City Connects Coordinator at Belle Haven Elementary School in Dayton, Ohio, and although she’s excited about having mothers, aunts, and female mentors in her school, she says that these women already show up. Teachers are already comfortable reaching out to mothers. And there are already a number of programs that focus on girls.

To be inclusive and focus on boys, Anderson reached out and formed a community partnership with Dayton Flight, a professional basketball team.

Anderson doesn’t like what she calls “one and done” community partnerships, so she has found multiple ways for the team to interact with her school. The team has provided families with tickets to games, boosting Anderson’s family engagement efforts. Players also visited Belle Haven last May for Field Day and played basketball with students.

“There were these big brother moments,” Anderson recalls, “young students thinking they could actually dunk the ball even though they were up against big players. It’s these positive moments that our kids will probably live off for a long time.”

Brandon Harper, Team Market Owner and General Manager of Dayton Flight, says it was “a natural fit” to get involved with Belle Haven.

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City Connects: building relationships between schools and families

To improve outcomes for kids, the City Connects model looks at four domains: academics, social/emotional behavior, physical health, and family.

Our focus on family is essential because parents and caregivers are key partners in students’ development and success. Families help City Connects Coordinators understand what students’ strengths and needs are.

As our 2022 Progress Report explains, “City Connects believes that schools are the epicenter of support for children and families.” Putting services and supports in schools makes them easier to access. And we know that supporting adults who may need help getting their children winter clothes or health care services also helps students. In short, when a family is doing well, children are more likely to do well. 

One example of a coordinator’s work with a student and his family is Julian, a student featured in our progress report. A fourth grader in a City Connects school, Julian had two strengths: his academics and his mother’s engagement with his school. 

However, “At the same time, Julian experienced significant difficulty with behavioral regulation in the classroom. He frequently disrupted lessons and activities, which not only impacted Julian’s ability to learn, but presented a challenge for his teacher and his peers.”

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City Connects featured in a Boston Globe op-ed

City Connects is in the news again, featured in a Boston Globe op-ed by Kerry Donahue about how schools can help students recover from the educational and social-emotional losses caused by the pandemic.

“Urgently addressing the needs of students is critical for ensuring the generation of children impacted by the pandemic do not suffer long-term harm,” Donahue writes. She’s the chief strategy officer at the Boston Schools Fund, “a non-profit organization that advances educational equity through opportunity and access to high-quality schools.”

“With only two remaining school years to spend hundreds of millions of available federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, the city should harness these resources in four critical areas,” Donahue adds. 

These areas are evidence-based literacy instruction, high-dosage tutoring, coherent wraparound services, and increased operations capacity.

As Donahue notes, students’ “increased mental health and social-emotional needs” are “straining schools and districts that were never designed to manage this volume or concentration of need. Expecting schools that are already trying to address major academic gaps, while managing continued COVID disruptions for students and staff, to also build an effective wraparound service delivery operation defies logic.”

One solution:

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