LSOE’s City Connects Program Finds A New Home In Minnesota’s Twin Cities

The Boston College Lynch School of Education is implementing its City Connects program in Minnesota schools in the Twin Cities, engaging students from local Catholic schools, especially addressing those from low-income and immigrant communities.

These cities have a large number of children who live in poverty, and many immigrant families, said Dr. Mary Walsh, director of the City Connects program. Thus far, the program is going well.

City Connects, launched in 2001, is a co-curricular program that identifies the holistic strengths and needs of students in order to optimize their educational and personal performance. Each school is equipped with a school site coordinator, a master’s-level school counselor or school social worker who compiles a profile of each student. This coordinator works with members of the school and local community to find opportunities for development.

“It’s not just about deficit,” Lynch School Dean Maureen Kenny said. “There’s also an emphasis on developing the strengths of children.”

The student profiles assess several factors for educational success. They highlight areas for improvement both in academics and personal behavior. They also address issues like nutrition, mental and medical health, problems at home, and physical fitness to provide appropriate community resources. But the School Site Coordinators also connect students to local programs in their areas of interest, such as sports or the arts.

Kenny also attested to the cost-effectiveness and sustainability of the program, as it draws on resources that are already locally available, but that may not have other ways of reaching out to students.

The governing ideas of City Connects originally emerged as the Lynch School began efforts to create a local community school in Boston. The result was the Gardner Extended Services School in Allston, Mass., which worked with local universities, hospitals, and recreation centers. A funding source suggested that the model could be replicated in many schools to reach more students and gather research about its effectiveness.

“What we’ve seen in short is improved academic achievement that lasts after the student leaves City Connects and … the effects last into the middle school and even into high school.”

City Connects has proven extremely successful, Kenny and Mary Walsh said. Walsh is also the director of the Center for Optimized Student Support, which evaluates the program’s research.

Students with the support of City Connects tend to have better report card grades, test scores, and high school graduation rates, in a comparison of Boston students with matched demographics and socioeconomic factors, related to eligibility for free and reduced lunch, Walsh said. These benefits are also related to having the City Connects program for a longer period of time.

In addition, non-academic areas like effort, behavior, and persistence have improved.

“What we’ve seen in short is improved academic achievement that lasts after the student leaves City Connects and … the effects last into the middle school and even into high school,” Walsh said.

Since its inception in 2001, City Connects has spread to various locations in Boston as well as Springfield, Mass., New York City, Dayton, Ohio, and Hartford, Conn. Its Minnesota centers opened in September in seven locations. Kenny noted that each center needs around a year before the program can open in a new school, as it takes time to hire a school site coordinator, identify ways to implement the model, and train educators in it.

“I think it’s that data that the program has been able to generate and also to produce that’s had a huge impact on the growing interest of the program across the state and now actually across the country,” Kenny said.

The model spans public, Catholic, and charter schools as well as K-8, high schools, and even community colleges, all of which were determined to have been successful. Kenny and Walsh both expressed optimism about the model’s potential to help Minneapolis and St. Paul students.

As the program spreads to new regions and garners national interest, with various publications including in the American Educational Research Journal, the coordinators feel their efforts and results remain true to their original vision for the initiative. They seek to expand it selectively to other cities, learning how best to support students in need and address the impacts of poverty.

“We’ve learned a great deal that we think will be very useful for cities and towns trying to improve how they provide student-support to students,” Walsh said.

Many BC students are involved in the City Connects process. A number of undergraduates work in the research department, as do many Lynch School graduate students.

“I think it’s important to know that research and practice can work together to improve the lives of students,” Walsh said. “And Boston College is the perfect setting to do this because of the deep commitment to both social justice and to education, and the well-being of the students.”

Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor