Report: Schools, Partners Must Do More to Address External Barriers to Academic Success

Today, WBUR’s education blog Learning Lab took a closer look at the Rennie Center’s “Condition of Education in the Commonwealth” report and policy recommendations. The story, “Report: Schools, Partners Must Do More to Address External Barriers to Academic Success,”  focuses on the impact out-of-school factors have on student achievement and features insight from City Connects’ executive director, Mary Walsh. Given the rise in the number of students living in poverty, the Rennie Center’s recommendation for a robust statewide student support program is particularly timely. From the article:

“[Attending to students’ out-of-school needs] has been a challenge for our educational system that has been emerging for the past two decades,” said Chad d’Entremont, executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy and co-author of the report. “In particular high-needs students, those in poverty, continue to struggle.”

For more information:

  • Read the article here, and see our previous post on the Rennie Center’s Condition of Education report here
  • Follow Learning Lab on Twitter @LearningLabMA

New Report Details Positive Outcomes for City Connects Students, Schools

Fifteen years ago, a small team of school, university, and community partners began working on creating the system of student support that is now City Connects. We were  hopeful that we would be able to demonstrate that addressing students’ out-of-school needs would lead to improvements in academic achievement and student well-being.

Our hopes have been more than realized. City Connects not only supports student thriving in school, but contributes to significant academic gains as well.  Our longitudinal research shows that for children who attended City Connects in elementary schools, the beneficial effects continue into high school. We can definitively say that the City Connects system of student support makes a positive and long-term difference in the lives of children.

We are pleased to announce the publication of The Impact of City Connects: Progress Report 2014, detailing results from the 2011-12 academic year in City Connects’ Boston and–for the first time–Springfield, MA, public schools. Highlights include:

  • Lower rates of dropout
    Students who attended City Connects elementary schools beginning in kindergarten have 50% lower odds of dropping out of high school than students never in a City Connects school. See page 25 of the report for the full analysis. 
  • Improved standardized test scores
    After leaving City Connects elementary schools at the end of grade 5, students go on to outperform their peers in middle school and achieve close to state averages on both English and Math statewide standardized test scores (MCAS). Benefits are especially pronounced for students most at risk, like English Language Learners. See page 22 of the report for the full analysis.
  • Supporting school transformation
    After one year of implementing City Connects in Springfield’s persistently underperforming (“turnaround”) elementary schools, the gap between these schools and other Springfield schools was significantly reduced in grades 3, 4, and 5 for both English and Math MCAS. See page 35 of the report for the full analysis.

“The data in this report make clear that thoughtful strategies and rigorous practices that provide non-academic supports for students can make a significant difference toward closing the achievement gap for children living in poverty,” said Mary E. Walsh, Ph.D., Executive Director of City Connects and the Kearns Professor at the Boston College Lynch School of Education. “Schools have always made efforts to address students’ out-of-school needs. This report shows that using evidence to inform practice, making effective use of community resources, and tailoring a plan for every student can alter trajectories for children. It has implications for changing the way school counselors, social workers, and other student support staff meet the needs of students.”

For more information:

The connection between students’ health & poverty

Research shows that out-0f-school factors (like hunger or homelessness) contribute to two-thirds of the achievement gap, with the other third being attributable quality of instruction and curriculum. One in five children in the US lives below the federal poverty level; poverty is one of the most pervasive of these factors and it impacts children across all four of City Connects’ domains: academics, social/emotional, health, and family. The connection between poverty and health has taken center stage in the media lately. The New York Times’ Well blog  recently featured a post written by a pediatrician, “Poverty as a Childhood Disease,” which described how poverty impacts a child’s health:

Poverty damages children’s dispositions and blunts their brains. We’ve seen articles about the language deficit in poorer homes and the gaps in school achievement. These remind us that … poverty in this country is now likely to define many children’s life trajectories in the harshest terms: poor academic achievement, high dropout rates, and health problems from obesity and diabetes to heart disease, substance abuse and mental illness.

APA_Task_Force_Strategic_Road_Mapver3-1The post highlighted a new call for pediatricians to address childhood poverty, an effort unveiled at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies earlier this month. It called poverty “the most important problem facing children in the United States today” and advocated for a consistent and unified voice speaking out about children and poverty.

For more information:

  • On Twitter, follow the Academic Pediatric Association  @AcademicPeds

Back to School 2012

Photo by tncountryfan/Flickr

Thursday is the first day of school for Boston Public School students–about 56,000 of whom will be returning to one of Boston’s 138 schools. Welcome back! To find out which 16 schools in Boston have City Connects, check out the “Where We Are” section of our website. Students in Springfield Public Schools have been back since August 27; on our website, you can also see the 8 Springfield, Mass., schools with City Connects.

Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville posted a welcome message today that gives some updates about the Commonwealth’s plans for the  academic year. One item on the agenda that we zeroed in on: addressing the out-of-school factors that impact students:

We will also be sharpening our work to address the non-school factors that too often get in the way of students attending school or being ready to learn once they get there.  The issues traditionally associated with poverty – hunger, health issues, homelessness – present serious roadblocks that prevent students from realizing their full academic potential. Through the efforts of our Child & Youth Readiness Cabinet and Wraparound Zone staff, we will forge stronger connections between schools, districts and local human services providers to ensure that every student in Massachusetts comes to school healthy and ready to learn.

City Connects will be providing optimized student support to more than 8,800 students in Boston and Springfield public schools this year. As Secretary Reville wrote, we know that addressing the out-of-school factors impacting students will help them learning and thrive in school. We wish everyone a healthy and happy school year!

For more information:

  • On Twitter, follow Secretary Reville and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Education @MassEducation and Boston Public Schools @BostonSchools

Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence

There is a growing body of research about the detrimental impact of poverty and non-academic factors on student achievement. A new paper published by Helen F. Ladd, the Edgar T. Thompson Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Economics at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, compiles a great deal of this research and provides four recommended policy changes to decrease the impact of poverty on children and education. The paper, “Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence,” is forthcoming in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

One of her four recommendations is to directly address the educational challenges face by children with low socioeconomic status. Ladd, also co-chair of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education,  advocates for increasing early childhood and pre-school programs, adding school-based health clinics and social services, more participation in after-school and summer programs, and improving the quality of schools for disadvantaged students.

At City Connects, we know that linking children to a tailored set of services aligned with their individual strengths and needs across academic, social/emotional, health, and family domains, has a real positive effect. The resource-rich settings in which we work, Boston and Springfield, allow our School Site Coordinators to link students to a host of services and enrichment opportunities based in the community. This suggests that in addition to creating services in schools, students would benefit from taking advantage of the services that already exist.

Ladd and Edward Fiske, former education editor of the New York Times, co-authored an op/ed in Monday’s Times based on the paper, titled “Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?” Largely summarizing the conclusions in her paper, the op/ed challenged education reformers:

“…Let’s not pretend that family background does not matter and can be overlooked. Let’s agree that we know a lot about how to address the ways in which poverty undermines student learning. Whether we choose to face up to that reality is ultimately a moral question. “

For more information:

How Housing Insecurity Impacts Children

The Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity is running a series of commentaries in November and December exploring the relationship between housing and health, economic opportunity, and education. The second installment in the series, “The Housing Vaccine: Why Housing Matters to Young Children,” considers the impact housing can have on a child, from birth through the early years of development. Pediatricians Megan Sandel and Deborah A. Frank of  Children’s HealthWatch write that a safe home is as important to children as vaccines–both keep them healthy. They address the concept of “housing insecurity,” defined as doubling up with other families for economic reasons, overcrowding, or moving two or more times in a year, which puts children at risk for poor health and developmental delays.

In Boston Public Schools, moving between schools, or “mobility,” impacts 25% of students, putting them at risk for low academic performance, behavior problems, and absenteeism. This is more than twice the state average of 10%. Housing subsidies, write Drs. Sandel and Frank, will protect families from both housing insecurity and food insecurity:

“Similar to receiving one shot against multiple diseases,  young children who live in subsidized housing are much more likely to be  ‘well’—developmentally normal, not underweight or overweight, in good or excellent health, and  with no history of hospitalizations.”

For more information:

  • Visit the home page of the series, where you can read the other commentaries
  • Follow the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity on Twitter @PovertyNews

Massachusetts Governor Hosts Education Summit

This morning, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick hosted Education Summit 2011: Closing the Achievement Gap. Joined by Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville and members of the Boards of Early Education and Care, of Elementary and Secondary Education, and of Higher Education, along with the UMass Board of Trustees, he issued a call to action: make sure every child in Massachusetts has the opportunity to access quality education.

Governor Patrick echoed what we at City Connects see in our schools every day: poverty and other out-of-school factors can be huge impediments to a child’s ability to learn and thrive in school. The Boston Globe reported on a new study showing the concentrations of poverty across the city today. The Governor said:

“We know what the problem is and we know where the problem is. The problem is poverty.  It’s not unions, people; we are leading the nation in student achievement in one of the most highly-unionized environments in American education.  It’s not money; in K-12 we are spending at record levels and have sustained that spending, thanks to the Legislature and the Obama administration, through the worst economy in living memory.  It’s poverty …  I’m not saying that we don’t need more flexibility in the classroom and more money.  I’m saying when it comes to patterns of educational achievement nothing is as significant as poverty.”

His speech laid out four strategies that build upon the Achievement Gap Act of 2010 (read a summary of the Act here):

  1. Getting every child to reading proficiency by the third grade;
  2. Providing every child with a healthy platform for education;
  3. Creating a differentiated education system that meets each student, particularly English Language Learners, where they are; and
  4. Preparing all students for college and career success.

The Governor’s second priority closely parallels the work of City Connects’ School Site Coordinators, who work to provide tailored supports and enrichment services to children. He expounded on this strategy:

“…All children need a healthy start – and when they can’t get it at home, we must find a way to provide it for them.  Poverty begets a whole host of out-of-school problems that affect the readiness of a child to learn in the classroom.  Mental health issues, family violence, housing instability and inadequate nutrition – all are real and present obstacles to student attendance, attentiveness and success.  Teachers know it and they, along with school nurses, do their very best to help; but they can’t be expected single-handedly to solve such complex problems in the lives of their students. So, we propose establishing Student Support Councils and deploying Student Support Counselors to predominantly low-income schools.  Possibly even early education centers or colleges.   These Councils will consist of local human and social service providers focusing their efforts on connecting with students and families through the schools to help meet their needs outside of school.”

Following the Governor’s speech, breakout sessions were held on teacher quality, student support, and career readiness. City Connects Executive Director Mary Walsh was asked to serve as a guest speaker for the student support session, where she relayed her experiences and views on the best practices of student support. We know that optimized student support improves academic performance for students and look forward to learning more about statewide student support initiatives.

For more information:

Video: “Lending a hand to refugees in America”

This video, which aired on CBS Sunday Morning, shows how out-of-school factors impact a particular population: refugee families. The story is about Luma Muflah, who started soccer league for refugee children living in Clarkston, Georgia, calling them the “Fugees.” When they started asking Luma for help with their homework, she soon realized that the children were facing a host of other non-school factors that made school a challenge. She launched the Fugees Academy, a school for refugee children, which she hopes to expand to a 19-acre comprehensive and permanent school facility, called the Fugees Village.

For more information: