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Lynch School of Education

Closing the opportunity gap with data, systems, and support

by william bole

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“Teachers cannot do the work of counselors and social workers,” educators told Mary Walsh when she inquired many years ago about how schools were addressing the out-of-school challenges of students living in poverty. Along with these educators, Walsh recognized that factors such as homelessness, inadequate health care, and community violence may seriously affect academic achievement. Over the past 15 years, Boston College Professor Mary Walsh has led the development of an organized approach to addressing these and other barriers that interfere with students’ ability to learn and succeed in school.

Collaborating with Boston Public Schools and community agencies, Walsh and her colleagues developed City Connects, a systematic approach to the work often done by counselors, social workers, and other support staff. Grounded in evidence, the practice reviews the individual strengths and needs of each student and links them to a tailored set of critical support services and enrichment opportunities in the community. Teachers and families partner in the decision making about service referrals.

Over the course of the past decade, research has shown that two-thirds of the student achievement gap can be attributed to out-of-school factors and how they affect a student’s ability to focus on school. The success of Walsh’s program, and evidence from its rigorous evaluation, shows that schools can collaborate with community partners to significantly narrow the gap.

City Connects has proven easy to scale. Since 2001, it has expanded from five to 17 public elementary and K-8 schools in Boston, and is also in 17 Boston Catholic schools. It successfully expanded to eight low-performing public schools in Springfield, Massachusetts, and is now in Dayton, Ohio, and New York City. In 2012–13 alone, City Connects linked approximately 9,500 public school students to more than 60,000 services ranging from tutoring to athletic programs.

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Housed in the Center for Optimized Student Support at the Lynch School of Education, City Connects operates with the assumption that students cannot learn and thrive in school without attention to their specific strengths and needs in several areas—academic, social/emotional, family, and health. In a City Connects school, teachers, families, school staff, and community agencies work with a school counselor or social worker (called a Site Coordinator) to review the strengths and needs of each child in all of these areas. The Site Coordinator then arranges a tailored set of school- and community-based services for each student and family. Student needs may be as diverse as a safe place to do homework, an after-school program, or an obesity prevention program.

“In many ways, the achievement gap is an opportunity gap. When we connect all students to the supports and opportunities they need, we see them achieve and thrive,” says Walsh.

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City Connects is rigorously evaluated by internal and external experts. Researchers in the Lynch School’s Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy have examined student achievement both in elementary school and after students have left the City Connects intervention and moved to middle and high school. The studies draw on data from comparison students never enrolled in City Connects and control for a range of demographic variables, such as race and primary language.

Findings show that students from City Connects schools significantly outperform their Boston peers in standardized tests and report card scores in elementary school. After they leave City Connects, in middle school, students significantly outperform peers who were never in City Connects and achieve close to state proficiency levels in both English language arts and math on the statewide tests. They also have significantly lower rates of chronic absenteeism. In high school, former City Connects students were 46 percent less likely to drop out than their Boston peers. Annual surveys demonstrate high satisfaction among teachers and principals (more than 90 percent for both).

Walsh recalls that in the beginning she was confident the interventions would bolster academic achievement—and contribute to what she refers to as student “thriving,” which includes behavior, motivation, and work habits. “But we never expected to see an impact after the children leave City Connects schools, all the way into high school,” she adds. Early support helps promote skills and bolsters students’ capacity to succeed.

With a current yearly budget of approximately $3 million, the program has drawn support from funders including the Barr Foundation, Better Way Foundation, GHR Foundation, Charles Hayden Foundation, Mathile Family Foundation, New Balance Foundation, and Strategic Grant Partners as well as the Boston Public Schools and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Walsh says much has changed since she first began working to systematize an approach to the out-of-school factors that impact student success in school. “Now, people are seeing that schools can leverage community resources to provide what students need,” she says. “When we work with teachers and families to connect each and every student to the specific services and enrichments they need, they succeed.