Congratulations to Mary E. Walsh

We’re excited to announce that Mary E. Walsh, the Executive Director of City Connects, is the recipient of this year’s Saint Robert Bellarmine, S.J., Award, “in recognition of her exemplary career and significant contributions that have consistently and purposefully advanced the mission of Boston College.”

Walsh received the honor on Monday at Boston College’s graduation ceremony.

“She is the fourth recipient of the award, named for the Italian cardinal, influential professor, and one of the leading figures in the Counter-Reformation.”

Ordained in the year 1570, Bellarmine was known for his commitment to education and to protecting vulnerable people. It’s a tradition that Walsh exemplifies in her work at City Connects. Her conviction that a combination of clearing away out-of-school problems, creating opportunities, and focusing on strengths can help students succeed in school has evolved into the City Connects model of getting the right services to the right students at the right time. It’s a “whole child” approach that’s built on research, data, and evidence of long-term success.

And as Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen explains, this work draws on Walsh’s personal experience.

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Shakamak Schools awarded $1.8 million federal grant to expand City Connects

A $1.8 million federal grant is helping City Connects expand in Indiana’s Shakamak Schools to support students who are finding their way through the aftermath of the pandemic. 

“This is the first time that City Connects will take its evidence-based model to a rural community, and we are eager to partner with and learn from Shakamak,” Mary Walsh, City Connects’ Executive Director, says.

City Connects is presently in schools from multiple districts in five states, many of which are in high-poverty urban communities. “We are receiving more inquiries from different types of communities,” explained Walsh. “We are hearing from more rural and suburban ring communities, in addition to urban districts. This is an important opportunity to continue to adapt City Connects to be effective in different contexts and in different places.”

In Indiana, the $1.8 million, five-year grant was awarded to the Shakamak Schools and to Marian University, home to the City Connects Midwest Technical Assistance Center. The funding comes from the Full-Service Community Schools program

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Offering English Learners an “adventure”

Adventure can’t often be found in a spreadsheet, but Carla Ann Femino did just that. By analyzing data, she found a way to turn a concern into an exciting learning experience.

Femino, the new City Connects Coordinator at Beverly High School, in Beverly, Mass., was conducting a whole class review when she noticed a concern that cut across grades. 

“The students in our English Learner program had really high needs and didn’t have enough supports to address that,” Femino says. “I like data, and I know data helps people understand what students need, so I did an informal extension of my whole class review.”

Femino began talking to English Learner program teachers who taught students who speak Albanian, Arabic, Italian, Nepali, Portuguese, Spanish, and Vietnamese. 

About 67 percent of these students faced mild, moderate, or severe risks in addition to their strengths.

As she conducted her review, Femino also found isolation. Some students weren’t connected to the larger social life of their school, and many weren’t well connected to their larger communities. And they were still building the skills to cope with the stresses of attending a school where most people speak fluent English.

Another factor, Femino says, is that “a lot of English Learner students have adult roles. They have jobs. They have to take care of younger siblings. They might come to school tired, but they still work hard at school, and they find the courage it takes to be resilient.” 

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A Library, llamas, and City Connects

Risen Christ Library
Risen Christ student with her sun-decorated library card — and a koala

With one small card, families in Minneapolis can unlock a world of castles, llamas, and “crafternoons.” That’s why Maggie Longsdorf is on a mission to make sure that the families in her school have library cards. 

“Any time we have a school event, I have a table out where there are always library card applications,” Longsdorf says. She’s the City Connects Coordinator at Risen Christ Catholic School in Minneapolis, Minn. “I tell families, I can have a library card for you in a week.”

It’s easy to forget how much libraries have to offer, Longsdorf says. But a library card is a passport to a world of new opportunities at nearby Hosmer Library, a building that looks like a small castle outside and holds tons of resources and opportunities inside.

Longsdorf says the three most popular things Risen Christ families do at Hosmer Library is borrow books, participate in the tutoring program, and join in summer activities.

“Having access to all those free books is great. And the library is also a great resource for families who are looking for extra academic support for their children outside of school,” Longsdorf adds. “Since the pandemic, a lot of students have been trying to catch up, and it has been difficult to find free academic interventions and support.

“But at the library, there’s free tutoring. All you need is a library card. Once you have that, you can go to any of the libraries in the Hennepin County system and get tutoring. And at Hosmer Library, there are tutors who speak Spanish,” which is important because many of Risen Christ’s students also speak Spanish, including those who come from other countries.

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“It’s about so much more than clothes:” City Connects and Cradles to Crayons at the Massachusetts State House

Lynn Margherio, Founder and CEO of Cradles to Crayons with Massachusetts legislators Rep. Marjorie Decker; Rep. Paul Donato; Rep. Vanna Howard; Rep. Donald Wong

Earlier this month, Lynn Margherio, Founder and CEO of Cradles to Crayons, and City Connects Program Manager Sara Davey led a hearing at the Massachusetts State House to talk about clothing insecurity in the state of Massachusetts – and across the country.

“The goal,” Davey says of the briefing which was co-hosted by State Representative Marjorie Decker, “was to raise awareness and talk to legislators about how they can help children and families.”

Some legislators were already aware of the problem.

“Several legislators spoke from the heart about their own childhood experiences of living in low income situations,” Davey explains. “One legislator said that when he was young, his clothes came from a local church. It was powerful to hear from legislators who know what the impact of clothing insecurity is.”

City Connects Project Manager Sara Davey

Cradles to Crayons defines clothing insecurity “as the lack of access to affordable, adequate, appropriate clothing.” Families “may have some clothing and shoes, however, they may not fit properly, be in wearable condition, or be seasonally appropriate for the weather.” 

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Promoting equity in Salem

Tackling social inequity is hard work. Last year, Salem Public Schools took on this challenge by forming a partnership with the nonprofit organization Equity Imperative that includes feedback from students.

That partnership led to the Student Voice Project, an effort to amplify students’ concerns and help them take action to address these concerns.

“We’re getting trained as adults to be facilitators,” Joy Richmond-Smith, the City Connects Coordinator at Salem’s Saltonstall School, says. “District staff are being trained about equity and race and how they affect our students, as well as about the negative impact of implicit bias and institutional racism in schools.”

The training for facilitators includes the Youth Participatory Action Research (or YPAR) framework, which encourages, according to YPAR’s website, the creation of “positive youth and community development” based on “social justice principles.” 

“In each middle school and high school,” Richmond-Smith adds, “we organized a student voice group that’s supported by an adult mentor.” And this year the program expanded into Salem’s elementary schools. 

Initially, the focus was on first steps. Richmond-Smith and Jaleesa Tentindo, a school counselor, worked with Saltonstall middle school students to identify “a pressing issue at our school that they want to research and then try to come up with recommendations for our school to implement,” Richmond-Smith says.

“The issue they chose was the lack of consistent and meaningful dialogue about race and racism.”

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A new video introducing our work

We’re excited to announce the release of our new video, “Introducing City Connects.”

Filmed at Boston’s Winthrop Elementary School last fall, the video is an overview of our work that will help us share our approach with schools and educators that are not part of our network.

The video covers some of the many barriers — among them food insecurity and a lack of safe housing — that prevent children from focusing on school.

City Connects addresses these barriers so that children can focus on learning, because, as the video explains:

“Opportunity is possibility. For an educated student, the possibilities are endless.”

Centering children: City Connects in Ireland

When Gerard Cullen talks about City Connects, he talks about the importance of keeping students at the center of the work we do. 

Cullen, the program manager for City Connects in Dublin, Ireland, explains this in a video posted by Ireland’s Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth

“One of the things City Connects does every year is we survey the children [about] what their interests are,” Cullen says. “We’re surveying children from junior infants to sixth class. And I was blown away the first year – and the results were the same second year – [by] what those interests are. I would never have believed in the Northeast Inner City in Dublin the number one interest was swimming. The second highest interest was Lego. Arts and crafts and cookery were there.”

“By having that list of interests, we can then use that to approach the different community partners – whether it’s Dublin City Council or whether it’s a local youth club – and say, Listen, this is what the children want. And I keep giving credit to all of the community groups in the Northeast Inner City. They have not been found wanting when they see that this is what the need is.”

“And when you said, How does it all work? or what’s the secret for making it all work – [it’s] if we keep the child at the center of the room. At the end of the day, all of us want to improve their lives.”

To hear more, please watch the video. 

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