The View from Room 205 – Chicago Public Media Looks at Poverty in an Elementary School

Image courtesy of Chicago Public Media

Can schools make the American dream real for poor kids?

That’s the question Chicago Public Media asks in its multimedia story, “The View From Room 205.”

“The little kids I’m going to tell you about are fourth graders,” reporter Linda Lutton says in the audio section. “They go to William Penn Elementary on Chicago’s West Side.”

On the first day of school, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, head of Chicago Public Schools at the time, tells the students, “There’s no dream you can’t achieve, if you stay focused and persistent.”

It’s this phrase, “focused and persistent,” that the story confronts by asking whether children and public schools can overcome the challenges of poverty on their own.

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Excellence in School Wellness Awards to 4 City Connects Boston Schools

Last month, Boston Public Schools (BPS) bestowed Excellence in School Wellness Awards to 13 schools, four of which were City Connects schools. Congratulations to the Edison K-8, JFK Elementary, Quincy Elementary, and Trotter Elementary schools, whose innovations promoting student health and wellness were commended at the Sixth Annual BPS Health and Wellness Summit!

“Collectively, these schools demonstrated innovative efforts in creating connections to improve the school environment to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” said [BPS Superintendent]  Dr. Johnson. “For a school to be successful in its mission to provide an education for all students, it must prioritize their physical, mental, and emotional health.”

Health is one of the four domains central to City Connects (along with academics, social/emotional, and family). With the support of the New Balance Foundation, our School Site Coordinators lead school-based health and wellness initiatives that teach students how to make healthy choices about nutrition, exercise, and social relationships. The New Balance Foundation Health & Wellness program increases students’ health literacy, resulting in better behavior, work habits, and effort in the classroom. These skills help students combat critical issues like obesity and bullying—both in and out of the classroom. In short, healthier students are better students.

For more information:

City Connects & Special Education

Education Week published an article earlier this week about San Diego public schools and their high Special Education referral rate for English Language Learners (ELLs), which echoes a national trend. The article, “Evaluating ELLs for Special Needs a Challenge,” featured a quote from a program manage in the district’s Special Education department:

“Special Education had become the default intervention,” said Sonia Picos. “Special Education was seen as the place with the answers, without taking into consideration what the long-term implications were going to be for the students.”

The article led with a kindergarten teacher who referred 6 ELL students to Special Education early in the school year. It turns out that for these students, out-of-school factors were the culprit: eyeglasses were needed for some, a hearing aid for another; none were deemed appropriate referrals to special education. This teacher may not have had other options to pursue before making the referral. In a past anonymous surveys of teachers, we heard similar scenarios:

“I think that for years, teachers thought that they had one direction to go in. ‘This child isn’t learning, they have behavioral problems, etc.’ It’s very difficult to look into complex background situations without staffing to help. You really need that third-party person to intervene, ask the hard questions, gather information, and to share that information with the classroom teacher and whoever is appropriate. In the past, all you had was Special Education.”

At City Connects, we work with teachers and school staff to look at the whole child across four domains: academics, social/emotional/behavioral, health, and family. Together, we identify the in- and out-of-school factors impacting students and then match them up to the services most appropriate for their individual strengths and needs. One of our main goals is to broaden options available for supporting students. While Special Education services are clearly the right option for some, we recognize that it should not be the only option for all students. Academic and social development requires a range of prevention, early intervention, and intensive supports, of which Special Education is only one.

The Research

Does the City Connects model of optimized student support impact Special Education referrals? To determine this, our evaluation team examined the accuracy of Special Education referrals, where an “accurate” referral is one that is not deemed “ineligible” and that results in Special Education placements aligned with student learning needs. Special Education referrals are costly, so reducing the number of inappropriate referrals would amount to cost savings. More importantly, appropriate Special Education referrals result in students receiving services that correctly address his or her barriers to learning.

For grades K-5, our analysis showed that City Connects schools are more accurate at referring students who display evidence of mild special needs. Comparison school students never in City Connects who are referred for mild special needs are 22% more likely to be deemed ineligible than similar students in City Connects schools.

In addition, our schools are not missing students who should have been referred to Special Education. Among students who were not referred in grades K-5, former City Connects students in grades 6-12 do not have significantly lower or higher probabilities of being placed into Special Education than comparison students.

Almost all principals interviewed feel that City Connects has changed and improved the Special Education referral process at their school. Both teachers and principals report that we have added beneficial new systems and processes to the referral procedure.

Citation: City Connects annual report (Fall 2009, updated Spring 2010): The Impact of Boston Connects: Summary Report 2008-2009, p. 36-39.

Celebrating National School Counseling Week

This week is National School Counseling Week, which we are celebrating at City Connects because we have many school counselors among the ranks of our School Site Coordinators. Sponsored by the American School Counseling Association, the focus of this week is “School Counselors: Helping Students Be Brilliant.”

To commemorate the work of school counselors, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released a statement yesterday:

I want to salute the thousands of professionals across the country engaged in school counseling. Every day, these unsung heroes in American education help millions of students sidestep the roadblocks of life. They help them succeed, achieve their dreams, reach their potential, explore their curiosity and more.

For more information:

  • Follow the American School Counseling Association on Twitter @ASCAtweets

New White Papers on “Achievable and Affordable” Education

The Campaign for Educational Equity, based at Columbia University’s Teachers College, issued five very interesting white papers about student support and the roots of the achievement gap. The papers will be discussed at a forum today, called “Achievable and Affordable: Providing Comprehensive Educational Opportunity to Low-Income Students.”

The authors make the case that comprehensively supporting students living in poverty is the key to preventing the achievement gap from emerging in the first place, a belief central to our work at City Connects. The papers include:

  1. A Legal Framework, by Michael A. Rebell
  2. How Much Does it Cost?, by Richard Rothstein, Tamara Wilder, and Whitney Allgood
  3. How Much Does New York City Now Spend on Children’s Services?, by Clive Belfield and Emma Garcia
  4. What Are the Social and Economic Returns?, by Clive Belfield, Fiona Hollands, and Henry Levin
  5. A Proposal for Essential Standards and Resources, by Michael A. Rebell and Jessica Wolff

All of the papers address student support from a unique vantage point, but in the first paper, Michael Rebell, executive director for the Campaign and a professor at Teachers College, sums it all up:

“Providing all underprivileged students with access to the in- and out-of-school resources necessary for school success—what we call ‘comprehensive educational opportunity’—is vital to children’s welfare as well as to our nation’s civic health and future global economic competitiveness.”

For more information:

MCAS Scores and the Achievement Gap

The 2011 MCAS scores were released last week (check out our roundup of the news). The Boston Globe published its own review of the results yesterday in which they examined the scores by income level. The article, “MCAS scores appear stuck in income gap,” found that “schools with substantial numbers of low-income students are consistently failing to meet academic benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind law, with more than 60 percent falling short of standards in English, and math, and lagging well behind schools with wealthier students.”

The article cited language barriers, lack of after-school care, homelessness, and mobility as “out-of-school” factors affecting low-income students. These are exactly the types of supports and services to which our School Site Coordinators connect students and families, in addition to enrichment opportunities like music, art, and athletic programs. We believe that this comprehensive method of delivering student support makes students better able to learn and thrive in school.

Our results show that City Connects (CCNX) students outperform their Boston Public School (BPS) peers on MCAS English Language Arts and Math, even after they leave a City Connects school and go on to middle school. The graphs below shows MCAS ELA results using 2009-10 data; City Connects students approach the state average by grade 8. To give you an idea of low-income status, 82% of our City Connects students in 2009-10 were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. We think this is strong evidence that student support is a powerful mechanism that can help narrow the achievement gap.


Both/And: Improving Education in Schools and in the Community

City Connects team member Matthew Welch penned a thoughtful guest post on BC professor Andy Hargreaves‘ blog, “Both/And: Improving Education in Schools and in the Community,” in which he proposes a way to stop the cycle of blame in education reform. The achievement gap is not just the fault of teachers, nor can it be solely attributed to out-of-school factors like poverty. Schools and the communities are jointly implicated and both should be part of the solution.  Matt writes:

“As a conscientious public, we should do whatever we can to improve [schools], focusing special attention on their most important element: teachers. But we should also acknowledge that there are bigger issues that schools are not equipped to address. The good news is that much of that expertise is already there—often already paid for—in the communities surrounding schools.”

For more information:

City Connects Named Priority Partner for Turnaround Schools through Massachusetts’ Race to the Top Grant

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has named City Connects a “Priority Partner” for turnaround schools in the area of social, emotional, and health needs. A project of the Commonwealth’s Race to the Top grant, the Priority Partners for Turnaournd initiative is aimed at qualifying proven organizations to support district and school turnaround efforts.

“Children living in high-poverty urban settings face countless challenges that impact learning and healthy development,” said Mary E. Walsh, PhD, executive director of City Connects and the Kearns Professor in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. “As a priority vendor, we are pleased to have the opportunity to work with districts and turnaround schools across the state to address the out-of-school factors that can stand in the way of student achievement.”

DESE has identified vendors to be part of a Priority Partners for Turnaround network. The network will serve as a resource for districts and schools seeking partnerships with educational service providers to help turn around their lowest achieving schools by addressing the state’s priority conditions for school effectiveness, one of which is social, emotional, and health needs. City Connects will work directly with local districts, and in cooperation with DESE, to provide these services.