Through an anonymous $10 million gift, the Center for Optimized Student Support, a path-breaking, evidence-based approach to supporting students both in and out of school, will be renamed the Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children in honor of the Lynch School of Education and Human Development professor who founded the program three decades ago.
Under the direction of Walsh, the Daniel E. Kearns Professor in Urban Education and Innovative Leadership, the center and its signature initiative, City Connects, have grown to serve 45,000 students annually in public, charter, and Catholic schools in Massachusetts and other states, as well as Dublin, Ireland. A program has also been adapted to serve students at an Ohio community college.
“This transformative gift ensures we will be able to sustain our work and broaden our efforts in the future,” said Walsh, a clinical-developmental psychologist who has been a BC faculty member since 1989. “It is a tremendous honor to all the members of our team over the years, our site coordinators, thousands of educators, and community partners who have been instrumental in this work. We are thrilled and delighted.”
The center has drawn from research in child development and learning to advance “whole child” approaches that recognize students’ in-school performance is affected by out-of-school factors, such as hunger, homelessness, trauma, and stress affect, that shape a child’s readiness to learn, Walsh said.
“We are so pleased about this extraordinary gift,” said Stanton Wortham, Charles F. Donovan, S.J., Dean at the Lynch School. “For three decades, Mary Walsh has been building an exceptional program that is improving lives for tens of thousands of children. She conceptualized it, raised funds for it, built it, and commissioned research that shows it is both successful and extremely cost-effective. Her consistent focus on developing the whole child fits wonderfully with the BC mission of formative education. This gift will ensure that Mary’s program will continue to benefit children, across the United States and beyond, well into the future.”
“This transformative gift ensures we will be able to sustain our work and broaden our efforts in the future. It is a tremendous honor to all the members of our team over the years, our site coordinators, thousands of educators, and community partners who have been instrumental in this work. We are thrilled and delighted.”
At the core of the center’s approach is City Connects, an evidence-based intervention Walsh and her colleagues in the Boston Public Schools developed and formally launched in 2001. Implemented in schools serving predominantly under-resourced neighborhoods and families, City Connects helps teachers and schools provide integrated supports to address the in- and out-of-school needs of students and foster their strengths.
Walsh calls the program a “long-standing research-practice partnership” that links the work done every day in schools to rigorous research intended to show what interventions work and how extra support translates into student success over time.
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, demonstrated gains in academic achievement that were similar in magnitude to the harmful effects of poverty.
In addition, Walsh and her colleagues have reported in leading peer-reviewed journals on a range of research discoveries, including:
•How and why addressing out-of-school factors improves student social-emotional and academic outcomes.
•Demonstrating that an elementary school intervention can have lifelong positive impacts, decreasing high school dropout rates and increasing postsecondary completion.
•Understanding more about how to improve teacher-student relationships and school climate.
Walsh’s focus on improving education for students in urban schools grew out of her early work with homeless children and families, where she saw firsthand the impact of out-of-school issues on students.
“That led me to think about how schools—without asking teachers to be social workers or nurses—can provide sufficient supports and resources to promote children’s positive development,” Walsh said. “Schools are a natural place where, if we expand the resources of the school and modify their existing one-off approaches to supporting only the most challenged children, we can develop a systemic approach that meets the needs and supports the strengths of every child. That is the goal.”
“For three decades, Mary Walsh has been building an exceptional program that is improving lives for tens of thousands of children...Her consistent focus on developing the whole child fits wonderfully with the BC mission of formative education. This gift will ensure that Mary’s program will continue to benefit children, across the United States and beyond, well into the future.”
Today, Walsh says, the City Connects evidence-based approach can be implemented in any school but is particularly helpful in schools where students have limited access to services and opportunities in both schools and the wider community.
From its beginnings in a few Boston schools, Walsh has led its growth into a program that serves 45,000 students through the work of BC- and school-based staff members, affiliated researchers, and collaboration with more than 1,000 teachers, principals, and school professionals.
“We are where we are today because of the support of Boston College and the Lynch School and the work of all the City Connects staff—here at BC and those working in schools across the country, and now Dublin, Ireland,” said Walsh. “It has been an enormous effort. No one could have ever done this singlehandedly or from the perspective of a single discipline or profession. We are a multi-disciplinary and highly committed group of professionals. It is a true team effort.”
Walsh said the center and its programs have succeeded because all stakeholders share the same outlook in their work with students.
“Their focus is on supporting the strengths and the needs of every single child in the school in a comprehensive way that of course addresses academics but in the context of their social-emotional development, their physical health, their family and family strengths and needs,” she said. “And the community. We tried to actualize the phrase ‘It takes a village.’ It takes a system.”
Ed Hayward | University Communications | February 2022