Recap: 2013 Boston Community Partner Breakfast

City Connects breakfast
More than 100 community partners attended the annual City Connects gathering

Yesterday, more than 100 members of the Boston community joined City Connects as we convened our annual gathering of Boston community partners to discuss “Supporting Immigrant Students and Families.”

On our panel, Vera Johnson, Director of the Boston Public Schools (BPS) Newcomer Counseling and Assessment Center, shared her experience working with families new to Boston and its public schools. After finding that parents and caregivers kept returning to her office when they had questions about schools, Johnson created a position dedicated to supporting families beyond their students’ initial enrollment into school: Parent Liaisons. Speaking a variety of languages, Parent Liaisons educate families, encourage participation in school events, and provide assistance maneuvering the BPS system. Johnson’s office, in response to the needs of new families, also began offering English classes for adults. She reports seeing parents grow into “savvy” members of school communities.

City Connects panelists
Panelists (l to r) Vera Johnson, Suzanne Lee, and Raghida Jeranian

Panelist Suzanne Lee, a community activist and former BPS school administrator, shared her first experience with school after immigrating from Hong Kong. Lee was a top student in grade 6 when she left Hong Kong but upon arriving in Boston, was told she should be in grade 4; her lack of English skills led to the assumption that she “didn’t know anything.” She learned how to rely on herself and  ultimately earned a college scholarship and spent her career working in education and community activism. While teaching English to garment workers in Boston, she said she realized why her mother–once a garment worker herself–worked so hard: she was looking for an opportunity to get ahead, and her hopes and dreams were with her children. As a teacher and principal, Lee learned that it takes more than good teaching and learning for children to succeed. “All children can succeed if we meet their needs,” she said. “The first rule is to listen.”

We also heard from City Connects’ own Raghida Jeranian, a Program Manager who supervises School Site Coordinators in Boston. She relayed the story of a Coordinator who welcomed a Somali student and her family midway through the school year. To help with the student’s transition, the Coordinator  set up a lunch group where the student could make friends with others new to the school and secured a space in an after-school program with a focus on homework help (the student’s parents didn’t speak English and were not able to help with homework). The Coordinator learned from the student that the family could not afford furniture in their apartment. Sensitive to the family’s privacy and pride, the Coordinator reached out to let them know of the services she could connect them to outside of school, like free adult English classes and donations. Thanks to their burgeoning relationship, the mother felt comfortable requesting help furnishing their apartment and the Coordinator was able to secure donations. This family shared with others how the Coordinator was able to assist them and they, in turn, felt more comfortable contacting the Coordinator and becoming more engaged with the school community.

Thanks to all of our partners who joined us yesterday, and thank you for your ongoing collaboration! Together, we are ensuring that students to come to school ready to learn and thrive.

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.

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.


Back-to-School by the Numbers

Over on the Washington Post Answer Sheet blog, Valerie Strauss has compiled a bunch of interesting data pertaining to back-to-school. A few highlights:

  • 55.5 million: Number of students predicted to be enrolled in pre-k through grade 12 this fall
  • 43%: Percentage of students (elementary through high school) who belonged to a minority population in 2009
  • 23%: Percentage students (elementary though high school) who had at least one foreign-born parent in 2009
  • 11.2 million: Number of children (age 5-17) who spoke a language other than English at home in 2009
  • 31.3 million: Average number of children participating each month in the National School Lunch Program in 2009

Here’s a look at City Connects by the numbers at the beginning of the 2011-12 academic year:

  • 21: Total number of City Connects schools. We’ll be expanding beyond Boston for the first time, where we’ll be in 15 schools, to serve 6 turnaround elementary schools in Springfield, Mass.
  • 7,500: Using numbers from the 2010-11 school year, we project that we’ll be reaching about 7,500 students total in Boston and Springfield, which is roughly 20% of each district’s total elementary enrollment.
  • 5: Number of days our School Site Coordinators are spending at our annual summer professional development institute, which is underway now!

The first day back to school in (most) Boston elementary schools is Thursday, Sept. 8; Springfield public elementary schools open Monday, Aug. 29. We’re excited for this school year to get underway!

Grant Awarded to Study Impact of Student Support on Immigrant Children

Researcher Eric Dearing, PhD, associate professor of applied developmental psychology at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and member of the City Connects evaluation board, has been awarded a 3-year, $150,000 Young Scholar award from the Foundation for Child Development (FCD) for his project, “Student Support in High-Poverty Elementary Schools and the Achievement of English Language Learners.” This award is the first for the newly renamed Center for Optimized Student Support at Boston College, which is dedicated to developing the most effective ways to address the out-of-school factors that influence how students learn and thrive in school.

Dr. Dearing’s work will be focused on immigrant children who are English Language Learners (ELLs) receiving student support through City Connects. Nearly 25% of schoolchildren in the United States are immigrants or the children of immigrants who are disproportionately likely to grow up poor and attend schools that are not properly equipped to promote their learning. Dr. Dearing’s study will inform policy decision makers on the value of systematic student support for improving the lives of immigrant children, in and out of school.

“Immigrant students who are learning English are the fastest growing group of students in US schools and, as a group, they face exceptional barriers to school success,” said Dr. Dearing. “From a research perspective, this award is very exciting because it will allow me to take advantage of natural experiments and quasi-experiments as evaluation tools, providing the first careful examination of whether systematic student support can be used to promote the achievement of immigrant children.”

Dr. Dearing will focus on four specific research questions:

  1. Is the achievement of immigrant children improved through systematic student support?
  2. Does child English proficiency moderate treatment effects such that ELLs demonstrate exceptionally positive treatment effects?
  3. Is the accuracy of special education referrals for immigrant children, particularly ELLs, improved by City Connects?
  4. What is the optimal constellation of student support services for immigrant children?

The FCD’s Young Scholars Program (YSP) focuses on understanding the changing faces of the nation’s children as reflected in the current demography of the United States. YSP seeks to support a new generation of scholars conducting research on the development of children in immigrant families from birth to age ten, particularly those who are living in low-income families.

For more information:

  • Follow FCD on twitter @fcdusorg
  • Read the full press release here (pdf)

More Boston Students Not Fluent in English, New Data Shows

The Boston Globe reported today that the number of students in Boston Public Schools who are not fluent in English–called English-language learners, or ELL–has been greatly underestimated. According to the Globe, new data released by BPS shows that 28% of the district’s total enrollment, 16,000 students, were identified as ELL this year. Last  year, the number of ELL students was 11,000. This spike is likely a one-time event that can be attributed to a change in the testing mechanism for fluency to include reading and writing in English, in addition to speaking and listening to English.

State tests show that ELL students’ academic performance is, on average, below that of non-ELL students–oftentimes 20 to 30 percentage points lower (source). In City Connects’ 12 Boston elementary schools in the 2008-09 academic year, 53% of students had a native language other than English and 18% had limited English proficiency.  The figure below shows that City Connects (CCNX) intervention has had significant effects on the report card scores of ELL students.

Longitudinal change in Reading report card scores,
CCNX vs. comparison-school students, disaggregated by ELL status

Data source: Boston Public Schools report card data, 2001-02 through 2007-08.

ELL and non-ELL students who were in CCNX schools started, on average, with significantly lower report card scores than their respective comparison students. Both ELL and non-ELL students who were continuously in CCNX schools from grades 1 through 5 had significantly greater improvement over time in reading scores than students who were never in CCNX.

The effect of CCNX on reading and writing report card score improvements was largest for ELL students. By third grade, ELL students in CCNX schools demonstrated similar reading and writing report card scores to those proficient in English in the comparison schools, thereby eliminating the achievement gap in reading and writing between ELL and non-ELL students.

Source: The Impact of Boston Connects Annual Report, 2008-2009 [pdf], page 12. Learn more about City Connects student outcomes on our results web page.

More reading about ELL students in BPS: English Learners in Boston Public Schools: Enrollment, Engagement and Academic Outcomes of Native Speakers of Cape Verdean Creole, Chinese Dialects, Haitian Creole, Spanish, and Vietnamese [pdf], a 2009 study by the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts-Boston