Shown above, l-r: Mary Immaculate College's Tracie Tobin, leader of City Connects implementation in Ireland; Winthrop Elementary School Principal Leah Blake McKetty; Boston College Lynch School Professor and City Connects Director Mary Walsh; Ireland’s Minister of Education Norma Foley; Mary Immaculate College President Eugene Wall, and Education in Ireland Vice President Sara Dart during the minister’s March 18 visit. (Justin Knight)

Ireland’s Minister for Education Norma Foley toured Boston’s John Winthrop Elementary School in March to learn more about a Boston College program that supports teachers and students at the Dorchester school and now works with 10 schools in Dublin.

“I’m in awe of the work you’re doing,” Foley told the Winthrop staff and their partners from BC’s City Connects program as they described how the evidence-based initiative helps provide a range of services to the school’s more than 200 students.

City Connects works with the Winthrop and seven other Boston Public Schools. Program coordinators, like the Winthrop’s Nicole Marques, collaborate with principals, teachers, and counselors to assess students’ strengths and needs and help provide supports—including tutoring, afterschool programs, clothing, meals, and health services—to reduce the barriers to improved academic achievement.

Sitting in the school’s temporary library, Foley heard from Winthrop Principal Leah Blake McKetty, who started her job 10 years ago when the Winthrop was a “turnaround” school with test results in the lowest one percentile of Massachusetts schools. A decade later, the Winthrop has climbed to the 14th percentile, though McKetty said there is more work to do.

City Connects “has been an amazing resource for us,” McKetty said. “It’s been integral to helping our students, helping our families, helping our teachers, at all levels and really just supporting not just our students but our overall school community.”

So far this school year, City Connects has helped the Winthrop deliver 1,484 services to students and families.

All told, City Connects serves 45,000 students annually in 139 public, charter, and Catholic schools in Massachusetts and six other states. Typically, the predominantly urban schools lack the resources of their suburban counterparts.

“We can alter the life trajectory of a child. When you put the right conditions in place around children, and teachers know this, we can do that. Children don’t fail. We, the adults, fail children.”
Mary Walsh, Kearns Professor in Urban Education and Innovative Leadership at the BC Lynch School of Education and Human Development

City Connects began work two years ago with 10 schools in Dublin’s North East Inner City initiative, which are among those struggling schools provided additional services and resources by Ireland’s pioneering Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools. Partnering with Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, City Connects worked during the pandemic to initiate its program in alignment with Irish educational regulations.

In the current year, City Connects has provided 4,777 services and enrichment opportunities to 1,800 students in Dublin, according to Tracie Tobin, a Limerick-based teacher and principal leading the implementation of City Connects in Ireland through her work with Mary Immaculate College. Tobin called the City Connects approach “invaluable” to principals and teachers in the Dublin schools the program partners with.

“In the 18 months that City Connects has been on the ground in Dublin, it has become successfully embedded in both schools and community organizations,” said City Connects founder and director Mary Walsh, the Daniel E. Kearns Professor in Urban Education and Innovative Leadership at BC’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development. “This is a testament not only to the program, but to our outstanding partners in Ireland.”

There is the potential for City Connects to expand its work in Ireland. Earlier this month, Foley’s office announced the expansion of the number of schools in the DEIS program. Programs like City Connects are suited to provide services in schools that need extra help.

Walsh launched the program 20 years ago based on research in child development and learning that recognized students’ in-school performance is affected by in-school and out-of-school factors, such as hunger, homelessness, trauma, and stress.

Groundbreaking research by Walsh and her colleagues from BC and other universities showed that students in City Connects schools, when compared to peers who never received City Connects services, demonstrated gains in academic achievement that were similar in magnitude to the harmful effects of poverty. The long-term studies have shown that students who received City Connects services in elementary school experience decreased drop-out rates and higher rates of completing college or other post-high school programs.

“We can alter the life trajectory of a child,” Walsh told Foley and others at the Winthrop. “When you put the right conditions in place around children, and teachers know this, we can do that. Children don’t fail. We, the adults, fail children.”

In February, through an anonymous $10 million gift, the BC center that operates City Connects was renamed the Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children in honor of Walsh’s groundbreaking work.

Following her visit to the Winthrop—part of a series of events the minister attended during a multi-day series of appearances in Massachusetts surrounding St. Patrick’s Day—Foley praised the work that BC and Mary Immaculate College are doing to support students in Dublin’s neediest schools.

“We were just so thrilled to get the opportunity to see the work on the ground today,” Foley said during a discussion about City Connects held at BC later in the day. “It was a wonderful example of what it should be and how it actually is operational. It is one thing to see it on paper but another to see it delivered effectively in a school community. I’m a strong believer myself that whatever challenges a child has, whatever needs a child has, a child also brings enormous strengths. We are very proud of the work that is being done and very appreciative of your work with Mary Immaculate College and [BC’s] expertise and talent as well and the collaboration we have seen here today.”

Ed Hayward | University Communications | April 2022