Ask Mary Walsh, the Executive Director of City Connects, about her love of education, and she talks about her parents who grew up in Ireland and were only able to attend school through the fourth grade.
“It was always my dad’s deepest regret that he never could get more education,” she says.
Walsh shares this story and the road that led her to become a professor of education in Boston College Magazine’s What I’ve Learned section.
As Walsh tells BC Magazine, one key lesson she has learned from her father is “Nobody can take your education from you.”
However obstacles like poverty, hunger, and parental depression can prevent children from getting an education in the first place. What can make a difference is equipping schools to move these obstacles aside so children can learn. And that’s why Walsh launched City Connects, to put Coordinators in schools who look at every child and provide services and supports to maximize each child’s readiness to learn.
In 2022, “gubernatorial elections were held in 36 states and 3 territories,” according to the National Governors Association. And as these newly elected or reelected governors are being sworn into office in the shadow of the pandemic, many are looking for ways to provide more students with more access to mental health and to wraparound services.
These governors face obstacles.
Billions of dollars are invested in these services by local, state, and federal governments, “to promote healthy child development and academic progress,” according to a recent policy brief from Boston College’s Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children, the home of City Connects.
“These resources have the power to be transformative.
“Too often they are not.”
That’s because a “complicated tangle of programs, services, and resources creates a barrier to children’s wellbeing, learning, and opportunity. Transforming this delivery system is both possible and urgent.”
“I’ve been a teacher for a long time, but I’ve never helped kids at this level,” Jelena Soots says. She’s the City Connects Coordinator at GEO Next Generation High School in Indianapolis, Ind.
“I was drawn to City Connects because my family and I are immigrants. And in the forefront of my mind is, What would have helped me as a child? What if we had this option back then? That’s how I shifted into the mindset of thinking about what kids need based on who they are.”
Soots and her family immigrated from Croatia in the 1990s when the country was at war. They lived in a refugee camp in Germany and applied to refugee programs run by churches. They were chosen by a church in Indiana.
“At our school, we have a lot of students from different countries, so talking about my experience with them is an icebreaker,” Soots says. “And even though I’ve been here for a long time, I sometimes struggle with how to identify with American culture and how to identify with my Croatian culture, and with the mix of both.
“So I try to be understanding with our students who are in those formative years of puberty and early adulthood and have to navigate the norms they see at home and the norms they see in school and everything in the middle.”
Soots is also full of energy and optimism. One example is her no brakes strategy for finding community partners.
This fall, City Connects launched in the Beverly Public School system, and just a few months in, we’re seeing successes.
Beverly was fortunate. It already had student support teams in place. But once the pandemic hit, Beverly, like cities across the country and the world, saw students’ needs surge. Students struggled with anxiety, self confidence, and how to engage in age-appropriate ways even though the pandemic took away so many normal, in-person school days.
Faced with these challenges and given its focus on equity, Beverly wanted a way to address the needs of all its students. So school officials explored their options and went to visit the town next door, Salem, Mass., where City Connects is part of a citywide effort to improve student success.
Partnering with Salem
Beverly decided to launch City Connects in five elementary schools, its middle school, and the 10th grade in its high school.
Beverly also began a very productive civic friendship with Salem.
“Salem has been awesome,” Megan Sudak, Beverly’s City Connects Program Manager, says.
Myriam Villalobos has so much optimism and energy that she has turned chronic absenteeism into an opportunity for building a stronger school community. And last month, she was awarded a $20,000 grant from the Boston Public School system to do this work.
“I am a teacher. I am a therapist. I am not a grant writer,” Villalobos, the City Connects Coordinator at Boston’s Maurice J. Tobin School says. “I have never asked for money, so I had to learn about the process, and I was fascinated by that.”
Her approach was to think globally about the big picture – and to do so with compassion.
The Tobin had 66 students who missed more than 20 percent of school. Another 144 students missed 10 percent. Chronic absenteeism is typically defined as missing at least 10 percent of school.
“Sometimes we are very critical about why parents decide to keep their children at home. But there are many social issues there. There’s inequality, transportation, and parents who don’t speak English and need their children to be translators. There are also parents who get sick and don’t have anyone they can ask to bring their children to school.
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.”
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.”