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The business of public schools is to educate children. The business of the Lynch School’s Boston Connects program is to enable that education
In a silent, empty classroom at the Mission Hill School in Boston, two teachers lower themselves into little chairs at a little round table. Joined by a school counselor, they set about looking at the world from the perspective of their students, in a way that goes far beyond the brightly decorated walls of the classroom and far beyond this gray-brick school building in the city’s gritty Roxbury section. With their students—a combined class of second and third graders—out of the room for gym and art appreciation, the women reflect on the children’s needs, a child at a time.
One girl isn’t “shutting down” as much as she used to, but she could still use some “outside-school help,” especially with homework, the teachers agree. Another girl seems prone to anxiety attacks, which leads the counselor to ask the teachers, “Is Dad back?” (Dad is thought to have come home.) A conversation about a boy with attention problems eventually turns toward another member of the household—”I want some support for Mom,” says one of the teachers, a tall young woman whose long black hair is in cornrow braids.
Next on the list, says the counselor, is “Danny” (his name has been changed, as have some minor details discussed at this meeting, for privacy). The room echoes with laughs. “He’s just this funny, quirky kid,” says the tall teacher, as her colleague relates Danny’s opinion on the subject of spelling. “He just hasn’t bought into it yet,” the other teacher explains with a chuckle, although Danny is clearly making headway otherwise. There are no smiles, just looks of concern, as the next name is spoken, and all three in the meeting make eye contact with one another. “He has his ups and downs,” a teacher tells the counselor after a disquieting pause. “You know the situation.”
This one-by-one review of students is a vital part of an experiment under way in the Boston public school system under the auspices of Boston College, an experiment that is yielding insights into how to bring down some of the most stubborn barriers to student achievement, those that often take shape in the low-income households and urban-core neighborhoods from which Mission Hill’s students come. The counselor who facilitated the meeting, Kathleen Carlisle, is far from a typical school counselor. Though she has a degree in that field from Boston College (MA’06) and works full-time at the K–8 Mission Hill School, Carlisle is an employee of the University’s Boston Connects program, which was launched in 2001 to grapple with the non-academic problems that hold back untold numbers of children academically.
With the unassuming job title of “school coordinator,” Carlisle is a combined social worker, teacher, administrator, even community organizer, as well as a psychological counselor, and she brings a diverse array of tools to the table. To help students like the girl who has bouts of anxiety, for instance, she arranged for a community health association to offer a weekly art-therapy class at the school.
The central idea behind Boston Connects is that students cannot learn if their most basic needs—physical, emotional, and social—are not being met. Now operating in 14 schools that make up two of the Boston school system’s nine geographic clusters, the program looks to serve “the whole child,” three words that flow readily in conversations with coordinators such as Carlisle and teachers such as Jenerra Williams (who sported the braids) and Amina Michel-Lord of Mission Hill. The program’s modus operandi is, first, to appraise the strengths and needs of each child and then to connect students and their families with a breadth of services in the city, whether the child’s need is for a safe place to do homework after school or for a warm bed after the electricity at home has been shut off because of an unpaid utility bill.
This thrust comes at a time when huge swaths of the education system in the United States have been moving in virtually the opposite direction, focusing on purely academic points such as class size, teacher performance, and standardized testing. All that is important, but it’s not all of what education reform ought to be, especially for high-needs students, according to the woman in command of Boston College’s experiment. She is Lynch School of Education professor Mary Walsh, a former member of the Sisters of St. Joseph who speaks softly and, by every account, advocates aggressively for her program.
With her slight build and twinkly smile, and her short wavy hair in a neat coiffure, Walsh looks the part of a kindly schoolteacher. However, she’s not primarily an educator by training. Before arriving at Boston College two decades ago, she served as director of behavioral sciences in the department of family practice at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester and as chair of the psychology department at Regis College in Weston. She is a developmental clinical psychologist who has always involved herself in the struggles of children in urban settings, a commitment reflected in her 1992 book, “Moving to Nowhere”: Children’s Stories of Homelessness, drawn from extensive interviews with 55 children in more than 20 homeless shelters across eastern Massachusetts.
Walsh is fully aware of the almost universal view among educators that teachers and principals have quite enough to do without trying to solve the problems of poverty. And she rolls with it. “You can’t expect schools to stop educating kids and become social workers,” she says in a near whisper during a midday interview at her office in Campion Hall, taking small bites of a peanut-butter-and-jelly-on-whole-wheat sandwich. “But schools are where the kids are five days a week. So how do you work through the schools to help kids?” She mentions one common task of Boston Connects school coordinators: arranging for students to receive prescription asthma medicine (the affliction is widespread in urban neighborhoods). Walsh says this is a job no principal has time to do. “Are schools in the habit of finding housing? Of course not,” she says, alluding to times when coordinators have linked up students and their families with overnight shelters or transitional housing. “But what we do know is that if we don’t help the students the best we can, they’re not going to learn.”
Soon after arriving at Boston College’s school of education in 1989, Walsh began pulling together faculty from the University’s professional schools of education, social work, nursing, business, and law, to explore cross-disciplinary ways of responding to the needs of urban children. The professors had weekly lunches together, nurturing a collaboration that—after several permutations, including a pilot project at the Gardner School in Boston’s Allston-Brighton section—eventually brought about Boston Connects.
The program in its present form began eight years ago in the Cluster 5 schools, centered in Allston, Brighton, and Mission Hill, with funding from the Charles Hayden Foundation and an anonymous donor. Styled as a school-community-university partnership, it was joined by a medley of institutions including St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and the Boys and Girls Clubs. In 2007, the program expanded to Cluster 2, encompassing Lower Roxbury, Chinatown, the North End, and the South End. It now serves nearly 4,600 students in elementary and K–8 schools. At this scale, Boston Connects is proving that its approach is “doable [and] getting traction,” says Thomas Payzant, a professor of practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who was superintendent of Boston’s public schools when the project started.
There’s been much hand-wringing about the state of public education all across America, so much that it’s easy to lose sight of the particular stresses bearing down on schools in low-income communities. But in fact, outside of those communities, U.S. schools are performing rather well, according to a number of recent studies that have drawn international comparisons using reading, math, and science scores. Writing recently in the Wilson Quarterly, education analyst Jay Mathews concluded, America’s “real problem is the bottom 30 percent of . . . schools, those in urban and rural communities full of low-income children.” When such schools are tossed into the statistical mix of studies on student achievement in the United States, in Walsh’s words, “we sometimes begin to look like a third-world country.” The poverty effect, she says, “is the challenge of American education.”
That Walsh is able to work many sides of this challenge was demonstrated during an interview in her office when she took a call from an official of one of the philanthropic groups that fund Boston Connects. The woman was phoning to inquire about the impact of the economic downturn on children served by Boston Connects. “Well, we’re seeing homelessness way up—a big increase in the number of students with big needs,” Walsh reported. And then she said to the woman, “Tell me how the baby is.” She asked about “Ted” (not his real name)—the newborn’s older brother, presumably, or perhaps the woman’s husband. “Is he surviving the ordeal?” The caller apparently said she’d drop by for a visit—”And bring pictures when you do,” Walsh instructed.
Walsh’s relationship style helps explain how she has attracted steep funding for Boston Connects, including $9.3 million in foundation grants raised over the past year and a half (though she’s quick to laud the fundraising prowess of the Boston College development office). The program’s biggest supporters include Strategic Grant Partners, the Hayden Foundation, and, most bountifully, the New Balance Foundation, which is backing, among other initiatives, a health curriculum aimed at raising the guard of students and their families against obesity, substance abuse, violence (there are classes in conflict resolution), and other scourges of the poor. (You know you’re getting somewhere, says Tom Myers, MA’07, who is a Boston Connects health coordinator at the Quincy School in Chinatown, “when a fourth-grade boy walks up to you and asks which of the snacks being offered in the after-school program has less saturated fat.”)
The funding for Boston Connects—almost $12 million over the last eight years—has allowed the program to deploy no fewer than 28 school and health coordinators inside the 14 schools it serves. On top of this is a team of 10 Boston College researchers who are amassing an empirical base, including data on the results of interventions, which is all-important if the program is to be reproduced widely, as its developers hope. Boston College picks up part of the research tab and helps to fund the program’s administrative structure. “This isn’t charity,” says Joseph O’Keefe, SJ, the Lynch School’s dean. Boston Connects, with its urban focus, helps keep the University close to its roots as what some used to call “Boston’s College,” O’Keefe says, and, he adds quickly, “This is a serious scholarly pursuit of school reform.” The program, he says, advances the Lynch School’s research mission of rigorously studying initiatives that make a difference in the lives of children, and reflects the school’s teaching mission, which extends to making its own students more attentive to “the whole child.”
Whether they’re deans or grant givers or foot soldiers in the schools, Walsh’s colleagues learn quickly that on the important questions of purpose and priority, she is a formidable stander. “She’s not one to back down easily,” says Patrice DiNatale, who supervises the coordinators from her base in Campion Hall and was formerly part of Payzant’s leadership team in the Boston school system. Walsh has stood her ground, DiNatale says, on occasions when coordinators have asserted their need to spend more time counseling fewer and especially-distressed children. That, in Walsh’s broad view, deflects attention from the thicker ranks of students, all of whom need to stay on the Boston Connects radar screen.
Reaching out to students before they drift behind is indeed emblematic of Boston Connects. A centerpiece of this approach is the “Whole Class Review,” the one-by-one evaluation of each student’s needs that coordinators conduct with every teacher by around mid-year. At the Quincy School, another emblem of the drive to catch students before they slide through cracks is a simple manila envelope taped to a basement door with words scrawled out in black marker: “Student Learning Team Individual Referral Forms.” Behind that door are Holly Corcoran and Katie Muse-Fisher, the two Boston Connects coordinators at Quincy, where there are 825 students, making it the largest elementary school in the Boston system.
Like coordinators elsewhere, Corcoran and Muse-Fisher have assembled a team of teachers and other school personnel who act quickly on worries about particular students—concerns detailed in forms that teachers take from the manila envelope, fill out, and drop off at the coordinators’ office. Elaine Leong, a member of the team and a school psychologist who divides her time among several schools, recalls one child who had drawn the concern of a teacher—a girl who, like many others at Quincy, had emigrated from a faraway land. Having trouble adjusting to a new world, the child acted out, disrupting class (Leong asked that certain details be withheld to protect the child’s confidentiality) and pushing around other children. Corcoran and Muse-Fisher began assembling a package of services, including art therapy and counseling outside of the school, and they brought her teachers and parents together for regular meetings to discuss progress. With her conduct under control, the girl gradually got on track with her schoolwork.
“If we hadn’t had all this last year,” Leong says, referring to structures put in place by Boston Connects, “she would have been referred to special education right away. She would be sitting in a separate class rather than in the mainstream of the school.” Among many educators, special education, as crucial and beneficial as it is for certain children with serious learning and behavior difficulties, is often viewed as a life sentence that rends a student permanently from the educational mainstream. Leong related this account during an interview with her and eight other members of the Quincy learning team, who began rattling off more cases of students who, in the past year, would have landed in special education, precipitously, if there were, as one teacher put it, “no Holly and Katie,” and no alternatives at the ready. Instead, those students are holding their own in regular classes, even if, in the case of one child mentioned, just barely.
Those who are involved in Boston Connects—locally in the schools or as researchers—believe that the general approach is showing dramatic results. The program has begun circulating data indicating, for example, that report card scores have improved at a notably faster clip in schools partnering with Boston Connects than in Boston schools not served by the program (see “Counterpoint,” below). One boy who achieved more than anyone could have imagined is “Victor,” the name given to a student, for the purposes of this account, by Kelly Hung, a former coordinator (in a school that shall not be named here), who is now principal of the Phineas Bates Elementary School in Roslindale.
With his father in jail and his mother drifting in and out of his life, Victor lived with his grandmother. He was distracted all the time in class, talking and literally rolling on the floors. “He wasn’t available for learning,” says Hung, who has master’s degrees in both school counseling (’01) and education administration (’07) from Boston College. Victor’s first-grade teacher had given up on him.
As the school coordinator, Hung began lining up an array of services: mentoring by a volunteer with the Big Brother agency as well as by a teacher who sat with Victor at lunch once a week; counseling at a trauma center during the school day; extra reading help during the school day; a social-skills group for boys, outside the school; and other help, including some decent clothes that Hung rounded up for the child.
As Hung tells it, Victor held on by his fingertips in first grade, barely eluding a special-education referral.
In second grade he joined the school chorus, and his grades improved.
In third grade he was accepted into a highly selective Boston Ballet program for children in the inner city, as part of a partnership with the school facilitated by Boston Connects. Hung arranged transportation for him to and from the dance studio, where he received free dance lessons each week.
In fourth grade, Victor’s days at the school were numbered—he was invited into a class for advanced students offered at another location.
With children pouring out of the pods at the Quincy School (an open-floor plan provides only a few traditional classrooms), down stairwells, and into a huge lobby, the end of the day at this Chinatown school has all the tranquility of a hurricane evacuation. The difference is that everyone seems happy and many of the students aren’t going anywhere, or they aren’t going far. In fact, some grown-ups are sailing straight into this storm, among them, on a recent day, two young women walking unhurriedly, holding violin cases, and a young man with a carrying net full of what appear to be rackets and birdies.
The chief evacuation officer is Suzanne Lee, who doubles as school principal, and with a light hand she manages to steer droves of laughing and shrieking children in the right directions. The students may be heading just across the street, for Chinese-language lessons (approximately three-quarters of the students are of Asian descent), or across town for tutoring and homework help at an after-school center; they might be staying where they are, for a violin class provided weekly by the Boston Symphony Orchestra or for the Go Girl Go fitness class serving up badminton on that day. More than half of the 825 students at Quincy take part in one after-school activity or another, most of which were not on offer before Boston Connects set up shop there last year. Break dancing, sing-alongs, martial arts, ping-pong, Indian dancing, computer, chess, chorus, bookmaking, and art (taught by professionals from the Museum of Fine Arts), in addition to violin and fitness—these are some of the enrichment activities spearheaded by Boston Connects in partnership with various community organizations.
Among the affluent, enrichment activities for children are a matter of course, but they are not taken for granted by Lee and her teachers. In Lee’s view, the lack of exposure to such experiences is part of the achievement gap between better-off and worse-off students. She points out that there are no passages about subways in the reading comprehension sections of the state’s standardized MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) exams, but there was, last year, a passage about Beethoven—which her third-graders flubbed. She recalls going into a class afterward and asking for those who’d heard of Beethoven to raise their hands. “Not a single hand went up,” she says.
Speaking of this and the full breadth of services offered through Boston Connects, Lee says, “People look at these as extras. But as far as we’re concerned, they’re not extras. They’re necessities.” She worries about funding for such efforts after Boston Connects winds down its experiment in the Boston schools.
While there’s no exact timeline for closure, Walsh says it’s unrealistic to expect private philanthropic groups to go on bankrolling the involved experiment that is Boston Connects indefinitely. Eventually, the school system would have to take over (although she says Boston Connects would be succeeded at Boston College by a research center providing consultation and technical assistance to the schools). The likelihood of this happening is a wide-open question that’s extremely hard to answer, particularly in a time of grim budgetary choices. The cost of putting a single coordinator into a single school runs about $140,000 a year (including outlays for supervisory and other administrative support). In January 2009, Boston superintendent Carol R. Johnson sought a 15 percent budget cut from principals to help resolve the city’s projected $140 million deficit.
“Right now, we’re trying to survive and make sure the kids have teachers in front of them,” said Vickie Megias-Batista, an academic superintendent for elementary schools in Boston and former principal of a Boston Connects school, when asked about the program’s future. Affirming the program’s success in raising student achievement, she ventured that in a better fiscal moment school officials would hope to maintain Boston Connects at least in those schools where it exists now.
The idea of attending to the social needs of children through the schools does appear to be in the political air. To cite a blue-ribbon example, a report by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s Readiness Project called for “student support coordinators” in every low-income school in the state, a recommendation made after Walsh’s testimony to the leadership group that produced the report last June. Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville said in an e-mail in January that state officials were and remain “very interested in promoting the type of partnership that is highlighted by the work of Boston Connects,” referring specifically to collaborations involving colleges and universities. (He did not speak directly to a question about funding.)
For those who are skeptical about introducing wide-ranging non-academic support in schools—and for some who are not—the focus of reform remains the mandate to hold teachers and school systems accountable for student performance, as measured principally by standardized tests. In June 2008, for instance, the nonpartisan Education Equality Project, an advocacy initiative embraced by prominent education and civil rights leaders and elected officials (including mayors and school superintendents of many of the country’s biggest cities), issued a statement calling on parents of students in low-performing schools to demand higher standards “with a single-minded focus . . . [and] stand up to those political forces and interests who seek to preserve a failed system.”
The day before, another group of educators and public servants, similarly prominent, had issued a statement titled “A Broader, Bolder Approach.” It argued that schools need a hand from the wider community and its social agencies, in their push to lift up the poorest students. Are the two approaches irreconcilable? At least one individual appeared as a signatory to both declarations: Arne Duncan, now U.S. Secretary of Education. As chief executive officer of Chicago’s public school system, Duncan led a drive to carve social services into 150 of the city’s 600 elementary and secondary schools, during the past eight years. His national ascendance is one reason why there’s as much hope among “whole student” advocates as there is uncertainty about the future of this movement.
What remains certain is that Mary Walsh will be raising the flag for this way of doing education reform, this way of giving children a better chance. On a wall in her office, hangs a photograph of an African-American child blowing bubbles with obvious delight and with Boston College’s Gasson Tower beyond. It was snapped a few years ago on a campus green when a flock of children from St. Columbkille School in Brighton were on the Heights for summer camp. What Walsh likes about the picture, she says, is “the absolute freedom in his face, blowing bubbles against the gothic tower, against the world.”
There was a pensive pause in the conversation as Walsh looked up again at the framed photograph of the little boy. Still gazing at the picture, she smiled softly and said, “I hope he’s still blowing bubbles.”
Boston Connects is related to a larger whole-student movement that for at least a decade and a half has tried to forge links between communities and schools, often under the rubric of “community schools” or “full-service schools.” In one of the better-known experiments of this kind, the nonprofit Children’s Aid Society of New York has operated 20 community schools (elementary, middle, and secondary) in that city’s public education system since 1992.
Sponsored by Boston College, the Boston Connects program grew out of a classic community-school partnership at the Gardner School in Allston-Brighton. That experiment in education began in 1997 and is still running strong.
Two aspects primarily distinguish Boston Connects from the wider movement: its focus on one child at a time, and its practice of matching up students and their families with nonprofit agencies outside the school. “Community schools don’t do that,” says program director and Lynch School professor Mary Walsh. Instead they have nonprofit groups working inside the buildings, extending their usual social services to students, their families, and the surrounding community. The school buildings become veritable malls of services, typically open from dawn into the night, on weekends and during the summer. At the Gardner School, for instance, children have access to a full medical clinic, breakfast and after-school snacks, and tutoring; their parents have been offered GED classes and immigration counseling.
Howard Adelman, who studies school-community collaborations at the University of California at Los Angeles, says exhaustive individual child assessments of the sort conducted by Boston Connects aren’t necessary. It’s easy to figure out the broad social needs in a given school, he says, and the great task is to gear up programs for the entire student population. For their part, Walsh and her Boston Connects colleagues are wary that a child’s distinctive needs may go unserved in the pack.
Nationwide, there have been plenty of experiments along the general line of offering social support to disadvantaged students, says Adelman, a psychologist. But there’s an end of that line—”When the money goes away, the experiment goes away,” he says, alluding to philanthropic sources that eventually run dry. There’s no case, he says soberly, of a major school system taking such a program system wide after the pilot project has run its course.
Walsh knows this, but she’s encouraged by the data her 10-member research team is grinding out on Boston Connects. It’s the kind of painstaking research that universities do. In what the researchers describe as “early findings,” average report-card grades in Boston Connects schools have climbed sharply (from under 2.1 to 2.6 in grade points for writing, for example, over five years), well outstripping improvements in other Boston schools. And the longer children are enrolled in a Boston Connects school, the greater their gains are, compared with students elsewhere. In general, the researchers say, the beneficial surge of services from Boston Connects is outweighing the impeding drag of poverty on learning.
Walsh believes Boston Connects data will help buttress the case for the whole-student approach generally, and for the one-on-one approach particularly. Adelman is lashing his hopes to a variant wind he detects in Washington. Arne Duncan, the new secretary of education, is a solid backer of community schools.
Read more by William Bole