Photo: Caitlin Cunningham


Mary Walsh

The founder of City Connects and executive director of BC's Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children discusses her journey. 

Mary Walsh’s conviction that children’s lives out of school are essential to their academic achievement led her to found City Connects in 2001, which has become one of the nation’s leading networks for connecting students in high-needs urban schools with the resources required to thrive. Walsh, the Kearns Chair in Urban Education and Innovative Leadership at the Lynch School, just retired from teaching, but will stay on as the executive director of City Connects and the Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children, which was recently renamed in her honor thanks to an anonymous $10 million donation.

Nobody can take your education from you. My father told me that his greatest gift in coming to this country was a library card. He and my mother both emigrated from British-occupied Ireland, and both had to leave school after the fourth grade to work on the farm. We lived down the street from Boston College, in one of Boston’s famous three-deckers. Sometimes, in high school, I’d walk up the hill to do my homework in Bapst Library, and I’d imagine I was doing real research. From the beginning, I just loved it.

“Always live on the hyphen.” That’s what my mentor in graduate school used to say. He was talking about the hyphen between research and practice—and how one feeds the other. I thought about that a lot during my early career, when I interviewed and worked with homeless children across Massachusetts. Their individual stories generated new questions that were much more complex and interesting than any single anxiety or depression test could capture. They gave me an acute awareness of what poverty does to the hearts and minds of children.

We have to make the world better child by child, but we have to do it in a systematic way. When we started City Connects, I knew we’d need to set up a process if we were going to try to determine and address every child’s needs and strengths. We also needed evidence to prove that what we did was working. Thanks to the late, legendary BC Professor George Madaus, we developed the best database in the country for anonymously keeping track of students’ progress. We learned that kids who’d had City Connects in elementary school did significantly better on standardized tests through the rest of their education, and their high-school dropout rate decreased by half.

Students’ lives outside of school impact their learning. There wasn’t a lot of interest in children’s lives beyond the classroom when we launched City Connects. The No Child Left Behind legislation had just passed, and schools had a laser-like focus on achievement and standardized tests. The goal was to fully close the achievement gap for poor students and students of color by 2014. When that didn’t happen, schools began to realize what the real challenges facing students are.

Opportunity expands our sense of what’s possible. I think of my father, a factory worker who spent his weekends in the library. He was deeply committed to social justice and was so thrilled to read about Catholic social thought. And I think about schools. Schools are the one place in our society that meet almost every child where they are, especially when they see students as whole people and provide them with opportunities for needed services and enrichment. What we’ve seen, over time, are good life outcomes for kids when you give them the right start.

Every student wants and needs to be known. Our work with City Connects can involve anything from getting eyeglasses for kids to finding shelter for their family, but it also helps teachers in schools with three or four hundred students understand what’s going on with each individual child. We’ve had teachers who come to us and say, “Now I feel like I really know my students, and I can empathize with them.” That makes a big difference.

Teaching is an active process of renewing the mind. I’ve gotten so many ideas and insights through my conversations with my students. Every time I walked into the classroom at the start of the semester, I knew I’d walk out more informed, with a whole new set of questions. That’s why it’s important for people who are doing research to teach and practice, and vice versa: it all fits together. 

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