Interview: When "City Connects" Helps the Whole Child, Achievement Gaps Shrink
An innovative program out of Boston College is making a big difference for children in 11 Boston elementary schools. City Connects (CCNX) works with the schools to link each child to a "tailored set of intervention, prevention and enrichment services located in the community."
Its efforts have gone a good distance towards closing achievement gaps between the low-income children in the program and children who meet state averages. CCNX's results offer powerful support for what should be common sense: When we address the challenges poor students face both within and beyond schools, they flourish.
A rigorous study (PDF) of the program's outcomes tells a pretty stunning story:
- The beneficial impact of BCNX [the former name of CCNX] on student growth in academic achievement (across grades 1 to 5) was, on average, approximately three times the harmful impact of poverty.
- By the end of grade 5, achievement differences between BCNX and comparison students indicated that the BCNX intervention moves students at the 50th percentile up to or near the 75th percentile, and the students at the 25th percentile up to or near the 50th.
- For multiple outcomes, the treatment effects were largest for students at greatest risk for academic failure. For example, English language learners experienced the largest treatment benefits on literacy outcomes, by third grade demonstrating similar report card scores to those proficient in English in comparison schools. In fact,as a result of BCNX, there was no longer an achievement gap between these students.
- After grade 5, the lasting positive effects ofthe BCNX intervention can be seen in middle-school MCAS scores. The size ofthe positive effect of BCNX ranged from approximately 50% to 130% as large as the negative effects of poverty on these scores.1
We recently caught up with two of the program's leaders: Dr. Mary Walsh, its Executive Director, and Patrice DiNatale, its Director of Practice.
Public School Insights: What is City Connects?
Walsh: City Connects is a systemic, evidence-based approach to school-based student support. It involves assessing, in conversation with teachers and other school staff, each child in the school at the beginning of the school year and then developing a tailored student support plan based on that student's strengths and needs in four areas: academic, social emotional/behavioral, health and family.
That support plan involves accessing services, supports, resources and enrichment for the child, both school-based resources as well as, and importantly, community resources. A trained professional with a Master’s degree—either a school counselor or school social worker—acts as a hub for all these student support activities.
DiNatale: It was originally conceived to address the out-of-school factors that influence a student's ability to come to school ready to engage in instruction.
Public School Insights: So you are not creating a new set of services, you are ensuring that the services that already exist actually reach students.
Walsh: That is correct. We are not creating the services.
DiNatale: We are ensuring the services that exist within both the school and the community are accessed to support the student, and that those services are tailored for his or her individual strengths and needs.
Public School Insights: Do you believe that, before City Connects began, these services were not being used as well as they could have been by your target group?
Walsh: Yes, we do. We engaged in a two-year planning project that included community agencies, and they told us that they had challenges reaching deep inside schools and making sure their services and enrichment opportunities were getting to the children who could make the best use of them. So we serve as a bridge between the school and community agencies and resources.
Public School Insights: Cynics might ask, why can't schools just go ahead and do this themselves?
DiNatale: We always think that schools should go ahead and do this, and my experience as both a principal and a Cluster Leader working with a cluster of principals in Boston was that they would love to. But at most schools the principal does not have the capacity to build all of the community-based partnerships that are needed and then to give them access to the students in a meaningful and appropriate way. Nor do they have the capacity to do the amount of follow-up that our City Connects student support program does.
So while the desire is there, to make this work you need a dedicated person—a person who really understands the world of school social work or school counseling, understands developmental aspects of children, and has the ability to not only assess student needs but to go out into the community and find the exact services and make the kind of referrals, contacts and family referrals that are necessary. It is a very labor-intensive process.
Walsh: When schools try to do this, even if they have a person who is working on it, that person is often doing many other tasks. And they still lack a systemic approach to making sure that every child has his or her needs and strengths identified, making the match to services for every single child and engaging the family, because families must give permission and follow through with agency referrals and enrichment opportunities. It does take a lot of work.
Public School Insights: How long have you been doing this work?
Walsh: We got a planning grant and started working in a full-service community school model back in the 1990s. That model was addressing something very critical, the out-of-school needs that really impact learning and achievement.
But while the model had many strengths, it also had its challenges. It did not focus on tailoring services to meet the needs and strengths of every single child. It was also limited in its ability to provide data on effectiveness, especially academic outcomes. Its deployment, one school at a time, was time-intensive and costly.
As we were trying to think through how to address these issues in the community school model, a funder challenged us to develop a model of addressing out-of-school barriers to learning that we could efficiently and effectively take to scale across many schools. We had to figure out a systemic approach to supporting every child.
That was in the late 90s. We put City Connects on the ground in 2001, after two years of planning with principals, school staff, families and community agencies. We have been perfecting it and measuring the impact of it ever since.
Public School Insights: Tell me a bit about your results.
Walsh: We have seen results in two major areas. One is academic achievement and the other is what we term “student thriving.” In academic achievement, we see positive impacts for students in City Connects schools compared with students who are not in City Connects schools but have matched on all significant variables with students in our schools. We see positive impacts on report card grades in reading, writing and math, with the largest impact on English language learners.
We also see results on the statewide achievement test, the MCAS—the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. We see those results at the elementary level for children who have some degree of need, who have mild to moderate risk or intensive risk. And while we stop the intervention at grade 5—partly because Boston's elementary schools have been organized as K-5 centers—we see the MCAS results lasting into middle school.
Public School Insights: I have read that in both math and reading you have significantly narrowed the gap between City Connects students and the state average.
Walsh: We have narrowed the achievement gap. If you look at the longitudinal data from 2003 through 2008-2009, we see the students in City Connects schools approaching the average MCAS results for the state in terms of children who score proficient and above. Had there not been this set of interventions, we would expect the students in City Connects schools would score much more like students in the city of Boston, which is across the board much lower than the state average.
We also see results in student thriving. We see differences between City Connects students and non-City Connects students in classroom behavior, for example. Those results are very marked for boys. We see differences in motivation, or effort, with that outcome very marked for English language learners. And we see differences in academic work habits. Those are pretty big markers of what we call thriving, but they also lead to academic achievement.
Public School Insights: Is this model expensive?
Walsh: That's a great question. The way that we have implemented, putting a support person and the model into schools, it costs a little less than $500 per student per year. It is a pretty good value.
Public School Insights: Many times when we uncover what looks like a very promising intervention, people question its scalability and whether, for example, the availability of staff or the kinds of students motivated to do it might limit the ability to scale it to much larger numbers. Have you encountered any problems with that?
Walsh: We scaled from one full-service community school to eight schools with one swoop and seemed to do okay back in 2001-2002. In 2007, we went into six more elementary schools. Some of these schools have merged or closed over time, and today those six are five schools.
That was in Boston. We are beginning an effort to go to another large city in Massachusetts. It is a big-need city in terms of the extent of poverty and the number of immigrants. We do not anticipate any significant problems in moving our model, and we have had some planning sessions to date.
In urban areas where there are a reasonable number of community agencies and services, we think this model is quite scalable. If you are in a rural environment with very few services, you would probably have to look at a different model. You would have to look at where the resources are that provide services and enrichment to the kids.
DiNatale: And in general, I believe there are significant numbers of school counselors and school social workers with Masters’ degrees who can to take this position and receive the appropriate training and support that City Connects offers. We have not had any issues with recruiting highly qualified personnel, and I feel like the personnel would be available to scale this up.
Walsh: And we can re-train existing personnel. While our staff is exceptional, the credentials required of them are not exceptional. We are able to work with them and give them professional development. We are pretty heavy on professional development for staff. It is how we ensure fidelity of implementation. And it is how we ensure quality work.
Public School Insights: In many policy debates recently, attempts to talk about the way in which out-of-school factors impede learning are often characterized as attempts to let schools off the hook, to make excuses for very poor schooling. Do you ever run up against that characterization?
DiNatale: I was a principal in Boston for 26 years. As the school leader it was my job to look at the root causes of the deficiency in scores of some of our students. And I did not want the faculty to put heavy emphasis on what I call blaming the student or blaming the family. We have to be realistic and know that as schools and as educators, we need to do much more and to accept more accountability for student achievement.
At the same time, we are educating whole children. Children who live in neighborhoods that are very impoverished in many ways, and we know poverty has an impact on student achievement. There are growing numbers of families not able to provide the opportunities that more affluent families can. Sometimes children's health needs are not addressed in the way they need to be for them to come to school and sit in a classroom and learn.
We cannot negate any of that. We have to put systems in place to ensure that every child has his or her maximum opportunity to learn. And we should not blame anyone. We just say we know students have strengths and needs and that we must account for that if we want every child to achieve high standards.
Walsh: First-rate teaching and learning are sine qua non in schools. And if you put the supports in place that help children address the out-of-school factors, you are really turbo charging the good curriculum and instruction efforts that are there.
We did not select schools for our model based on their curriculum and instruction. We went to Boston Public Schools, and the district asked us to work with schools in a particular geography. So it is not like we said, “We are not going there because the principal does not have her act together.” We went in regardless of the situation. And we have had an effect in all of those schools. But we are under no illusion that effect size is independent. We would expect the effect to be much larger where there is really good instruction beginning to take hold.
Public School Insights: There is another argument I've heard when it comes to addressing out-of-school factors that can influence student achievement, and that is that we are taking schools away from their mission. That it is not the school's job to see to all these non-academic things. It is the school's job to teach children while parents and others see to all of the nonacademic problems.
DiNatale: If not schools, what institution? Children are in school at least 180 days for at least six hours a day. So they're kind of a captive audience. Yes, good instruction has to take place, and that is the mission of the school. But if you believe that children cannot reach high standards of learning if other factors are not taken care of, who will take care of those factors if not schools? The school should have the capacity to address the whole child.
Walsh: The way I hear the argument is often black-and-white. But I do not think that it is “either or.” It is “both and.” There is no teacher I have ever met who says, “I can teach Johnny to spell and not know anything about who Johnny is as a person.” She does not need to have visited Johnny's home or know what his health records look like. But she needs a certain amount of knowledge about the student so her instruction is more effective. I think it is just a large version of that we are talking about.
We do not try to say that we are responsible for addressing every issue in the family. We do not even say that we are responsible for addressing every issue that impacts Johnny. What we are saying is that if it is an issue that impacts his ability to learn or his readiness to engage in learning when he comes to school, then we have a mechanism in place to support him. One that allows us to use effectively and in a targeted way those community resources and services that are sitting there waiting to be accessed.
Public School Insights: Are there any questions I should have asked you, but did not?
Walsh: I think that there is one—what do teachers think of this?
DiNatale: And what do principals think about it? Community partners?
Walsh: We have some very interesting data on that. 95% of our teachers are very enthusiastic about the program and would recommend it to another teacher. Those are pretty high marks from teachers, who are typically pretty critical folks and constantly bombarded with new programs and interventions. They are, almost to a person, extremely enthusiastic.
In addition to anonymous surveys, we do a lot of in-depth interviews with teachers that let us know how this is helping them. First of all, it lets them know that somebody is doing something to address the out-of-school needs of a particular child. They may recognize that the child needs something. They may not know what. Or they may know, but not be in a position to deliver it. Nor should they be in that position, because they are teachers. But they feel very relieved that somebody is addressing it.
They also feel a lot of support around a particularly challenging child, that there is somebody in the school worrying about them and trying to problem-solve with them. So they have been very positive. And principals and community agencies have been equally positive, over several years.
DiNatale: Community agencies tell us this repeatedly. In fact, they told Arne Duncan when he came to Boston about three weeks ago.
The principal at a very large school where we have been working was selected as the only Boston school visit on a recent trip for Secretary Duncan. The principal decided to use his short time with Duncan by inviting his community partners to the table. He had six groups come in to sit around a small table with the Secretary. At that meeting, before we spoke, other agencies were saying, “Here is the work that we do in the school. We run a mentor program. We run a tutoring program. We run a community center program. And our work is made much more effective because of the City Connects coordinators in the schools.”
While Duncan did not know what they were at that point, he knew that the perception of the community agencies is that we allow them to operate more effectively by targeting children, helping to make connections, making sure paperwork gets signed by the parents so children can participate and literally making it happen for them in the schools. So community agencies are very enthusiastic.
1 Boston Center for Child, Family and Community Partnerships, The Impact of Boston Connects: Summary Report, 2008-2009, Boston College, 2009, 35.
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
- 2013 Digital Principal Ryan Imbriale
- Best Selling Author Dan Ariely
- Family Engagement Expert Dr. Maria C. Paredes
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
Excellence is the Standard
At Pierce County High School in rural southeast Georgia, the graduation rate has gone up 31% in seven years. Teachers describe their collaboration as the unifying factor that drives the school’s improvement. Learn more...
- Transforming Learning
- The EDifier
- School Board News Today
- Legal Clips
- Learning Forward’s PD Watch
- NAESP's Principals' Office
- NASSP's Principal's Policy Blog
- The Principal Difference
- ASCA Scene
- PDK Blog
- Always Something
- NSPRA: Social School Public Relations
- AACTE's President's Perspective
- AASA's The Leading Edge
- AASA Connects (formerly AASA's School Street)
- NEA Today
- Angles on Education
- Lily's Blackboard
- PTA's One Voice
- ISTE Connects
What Else We're Reading
- Advancing the Teaching Profession
- The Answer Sheet
- Edutopia's Blogs
- Politics K-12
- U.S. Department of Education Blog
- John Wilson Unleashed
- The Core Knowledge Blog
- This Week in Education
- Inside School Research
- Teacher Leadership Today
- On the Shoulders of Giants
- Teacher in a Strange Land
- Teach Moore
- The Tempered Radical
- The Educated Reporter
- Taking Note
- Character Education Partnership Blog
- Why I Teach