Mary E. Walsh

Impacting Academic Achievement Through Student Support

City ConnectsFifteen years ago, a small team of school, university, and community partners began working on creating the system of student support that is now City Connects. We were hopeful that we would be able to demonstrate that addressing students' out-of-school needs would lead to improvements in academic achievement and student well-being.

Developed at Boston College's Lynch School of Education in the late 90s, City Connects is a student support intervention that addresses the non-academic factors like homelessness or hunger that can limit academic achievement, especially for children living in poverty. The intervention identifies the strengths and needs of every child across academic, social/emotional, health, and family domains and connects each student to a tailored set of prevention, intervention, and enrichment services available in the community and/or school.

Our hopes have been more than realized. City Connects not only supports student thriving in school, but contributes to significant academic gains as well. Our longitudinal research demonstrates that for children who attended City Connects schools in grades K–5, the beneficial effects continue into middle and high school. We can definitively say that the City Connects system of student support makes a positive and long-term difference in the lives of children.

We are pleased to announce the publication of The Impact of City Connects: Progress Report 2014 (PDF), detailing results from the 2011–12 academic year in City Connects' Boston and—for the first time—Springfield, Mass., public schools. Specifically, the report indicates that the City Connects intervention results in:

  • Lower rates of dropout: Students who attended City Connects elementary schools beginning in kindergarten have 50 percent lower odds of dropping out of high school than students never in a City Connects school.
  • Improved standardized test scores: After leaving City Connects elementary schools at the end of grade 5, students go on to outperform their peers in middle school and achieve close to state averages on both English and math statewide standardized test scores (MCAS). Benefits are especially pronounced for students most at risk, like English language learners.
  • Support for school transformation: After one year of implementing City Connects in Springfield's persistently underperforming ("turnaround") elementary schools, the gap between these schools and other Springfield schools was significantly reduced in grades 3, 4, and 5 for both English and math MCAS.

Students also continue to show decreased likelihood of being chronically absent (missing 10 percent or more of school days) and being "kept back" (retained) in a grade.

The report reveals the large number of supports and services provided to students. Across the City Connects schools in Boston and Springfield, 9,500 students were linked to 55,400 services and enrichment opportunities provided by the school district as well as by 550 community partners. Anonymous surveys administered in academic year 2012–13 showed that across districts, teachers, principals, and community partners consistently reported high levels of satisfaction with City Connects.

The data in this report make clear that thoughtful strategies and rigorous practices that provide non-academic supports for students can make a significant difference in closing the achievement gap for children living in poverty. Schools have always made efforts to address students' out-of-school needs. This report shows that using evidence to inform practice, making effective use of community resources, and tailoring a plan for every student can alter trajectories for children. It has implications for changing the way school counselors, social workers, and other student support staff meet the needs of all students.

Mary E. Walsh, PhD, is the executive director of City Connects and the Kearns Professor of Urban Education & Innovative Leadership at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College.

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