Student Well-Being

Learning Payoff Found for ‘City Connects’ Program

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 30, 2014 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 6 min read
Nicole Young, at center in white sweater, a City Connects coordinator at Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Boston, leads a tour of the school for college students who will be volunteer tutors there. New research suggests there is an academic payoff from the City Connects program, which links students and their families to supports and resources that align with their needs.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story included incorrect information on the time it takes to review students for the City Connects program. The correct figure is 4 to 5 minutes.

Even in resource-rich cities like Boston or New York, students in poverty often miss out on the support and enrichment provided by local museums, businesses, and civic organizations.

By the start of middle school, The Afterschool Corp. estimates that children in poverty have received 6,000 fewer hours of learning outside of school—both enrichment and support—than their middle-income peers. While many programs target low-income students who are struggling academically or emotionally, it can be more difficult to find enrichment activities to build on the strengths and interests of students progressing normally in school.

To fill those gaps, some elementary schools in two states—Massachusetts and Ohio—are working to better coordinate with local partners to provide the kinds of cultural and extracurricular experiences, as well as social services and supports, that boost all students’ long-term academic progress.

The approach is at the heart of a Boston College program called “City Connects,” which helps schools organize and align services for students, including the “great middle"—students who are neither excelling enough to be tapped for gifted programs nor struggling enough to be identified for special education.

“Let’s not spend all our time on the 10 percent of kids who are having the most trouble, because we’re missing the other 90 percent,” said Mary E. Walsh, a professor in urban education and innovative leadership counseling at Boston College. “Most kids, even if they are doing OK, can always benefit from all the opportunities in the community that can foster resilience. There’s a lot we can do to promote healthy development.”

New Study Results

An evaluation published in the August issue of the American Educational Research Journal suggests that the program may be yielding results. The study found evidence that students who attended elementary schools that engaged in more personalized use of community programs and services performed better academically, not just during their early years but through the end of middle school.

Boston College researchers tracked nearly 8,000 students in kindergarten through 5th grade in the Boston public schools from 1999 through 2009. A little more than 3,400 of those students attended one of 13 city schools implementing the City Connects program; the rest attended more-typical elementary schools that were matched by neighborhood and demographics. The researchers also analyzed the performance of students in four schools before and after implementing the program.

Catherine Riede, a City Connects coordinator at Josiah Quincy Elementary School, in Boston, watches as students play a game of Candyland as an ice-breaker exercise. A recent study found that the academic gains students made in the program persisted into middle school.

Ms. Walsh and colleagues at Boston College’s Center for Optimized Student Support have been developing and studying the program for more than 15 years in schools in Boston and Springfield, Mass., and Dayton, Ohio. The participating schools conduct detailed needs assessments and generate electronic data profiles of every child on campus. Then a coordinator works with teachers and administrators to identify and arrange for community and local agency services, creating a single support system instead of matching students with programs ad hoc.

In the study published in AERJ, the latest in a series on the program, students attending the City Connects elementary schools showed higher reading, writing, and mathematics report-card performance in grades 3 to 5 and higher math scores on the state standardized test in grade 3. In middle school, students who had attended a City Connects school had higher overall course grades in 6th and 7th grades, and higher performance on math and English/language arts state tests in grades 6, 7, and 8.

The results suggest that additional support for students outside of school, both in academic and nonacademic areas, can clear the way for students to progress academically, Ms. Walsh said.

Strengths and Needs

City Connects uses a tiered approach similar to that employed by response-to-intervention models to monitor students’ progress and supports in and out of school, beginning with a “whole class review” in which every student in a school receives a personal review by a three-person team including the child’s teacher.

“One of the things that happens in the teachers’ lunchroom is they talk about the [students] who give them grief, they talk about the star, but there’s the great middle that goes unnoticed from year to year,” Ms. Walsh said. “They never sit and review every single child, and they never look at the class as a whole.”

In the City Connects review, the teacher, program coordinator, and another staff member or administrator analyze and record each student’s strengths and needs in four areas: academics, health, social-emotional development, and family. Conversations within the review cover some of the typical indicators, like grades, test scores, and absences, but also more subtle cues, according to Catherine Riede, a City Connects coordinator for Boston’s Josiah Quincy Elementary School: “Does the student appear lethargic in class? What kind of snacks do they bring? Is the family communicative, do they sign and return papers?” Ms. Riede explained. “There are a lot of different avenues to look at.”

The process takes about 4 to 5 minutes per student, and the resulting profiles are entered into an electronic data system that allows teachers and administrators to look at the needs and strengths of individual students, classes, or the whole school.

Once every student and classroom has a profile of needs and strengths, the program coordinators go to community partners to match services to students.

The coordinator fills roles often managed elsewhere in a piecemeal manner by a school’s principal, guidance counselor, or teachers. The coordinator can also screen potential community services so that teachers and parents aren’t overwhelmed by the array of outside groups.

“It’s really important for community partners to have someone focus on managing the programs at the school,” said Nicole A. Young, who joined City Connects in Boston as a coordinator after working with a Big Sisters program in the district.

Meeting Needs

For example, after reviews last year, Ms. Riede said the school realized it had some strong general mentoring programs, but not enough targeted to young boys; it was able to work with other City Connects schools to find programs that specifically could provide men as role models.

Even in a city like Boston, which is packed with museums, colleges, and medical centers, schools still need help coordinating access to such resources.

“We can’t just say, ‘Here’s a note for your mother; tell her to take you to a museum,” Ms. Walsh said. “We need to talk to the museum, find free passes, figure out how to get transportation for the family.”.

Ms. Young also asks community groups to arrange programs on campus for families with transportation challenges. For example, to help several Quincy families with nutrition and obesity problems, the school brought in dieticians from a nearby Tufts University medical center to give shopping tips and cooking lessons for low-income families. Those cooking lessons proved so popular that the school offered a three-night cooking series called “Delicious Living” last spring.

Researchers are still tracking the longterm effects of more community support, but some early results show promise. A separate 2014 progress report on the program that has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal shows students who had attended City Connects schools also had significantly lower rates of chronic absenteeism throughout their school years, including high school.

The results suggest community groups can keep students more connected to school if they know how to reach the students, Ms. Walsh said: “It’s much better to work with children in a holistic way than to come in and say, ‘I have a magical mental-health program and I’m going to give counseling to all of the students in your school.’”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2014 edition of Education Week as ‘City Connects’ Links Students to Learning Opportunities

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