Dealing with stressors at urban schools

City Connects links social workers and students

AS STUDENTS RETURN TO THE CLASSROOM this week, some will arrive burdened by more than a heavy book bag. For many children in low-income communities, back-to-school means managing social and academic pressures, while coping with serious challenges—trauma from fleeing a country at war or exposure to violence in the neighborhood; worries about whether they will have a place to call home at night or whether a parent struggling with addiction will relapse again; nagging untreated or undiagnosed health issues.

Increasingly, urban school leaders across Massachusetts recognize the effect that these stressors can have on learning. They are responding by embedding lessons in their curriculums that strengthen the social-emotional skills students need to problem-solve and persevere. Urban school districts are also working closely with families and providers in the community to tailor services to students with a range of additional needs, whether it’s a dose of healthy recreational activity, a positive relationship with an adult mentor, care for chronic asthma, or behavioral health treatment.

Evidence suggests schools can make a profound difference in the wellbeing of their students when they provide this kind of non-academic support. The most rigorously evaluated approach is a model known as City Connects. Developed by researchers at Boston College, City Connects places a licensed social worker in each school to screen all students, identifying their strengths and needs and making appropriate linkages to existing services.

A recent study in the American Education Research Journal found that City Connects has had a big impact on elementary school students in Boston. By 8th grade, students in City Connects schools closed half of the achievement gap on the state’s English exam and two-thirds of the achievement gap on the Math exam. Longer term, City Connects cut their four-year high school drop-out rate by nearly half, down to 8 percent from a district average of 15.2 percent.

While this model of integrated non-academic support clearly has enormous potential to improve the lives of vulnerable children, the state needs to take a more active role helping communities implement the approach. A recent MassINC study found that urban schools lack trained faculty, social workers, systems to track student outcomes, and perhaps most significantly, a mandate to fulfill this function In many urban districts, pressure to improve test scores keeps funding almost entirely focused on academic supports.

These gaps deserve more attention. The issue is most intense for high-poverty urban schools, but all students in Massachusetts should be in learning environments with robust non-academic supports. Social-emotional development is not just about resiliency. In the global knowledge economy, these same skills help workers be more collaborative and flexible in the face of constant change. And healthy child development is a major concern in all of our communities. At a time when issues like school bullying and addiction know no boundaries, improving the delivery of non-academic support should be a major priority. The issues require local leaders, legislators and our Governor to collaborate with school leaders. Together, here’s what we can do to help:

  1. Provide schools with resources to offer non-academic support. State education funding has not kept up with rising costs. This is particularly problematic for high-poverty schools. In many of these schools, the ratio of students to social workers is less than half the national standard. Without enough social workers, classroom teachers are often overwhelmed by non-academic student needs.
  2. Build backbone data infrastructure. Many states are ahead of Massachusetts with information systems to monitor how children are served by schools, social service agencies, and behavioral health providers. Such information would be particularly beneficial for improving the delivery of services to students in the custody of the Department of Children and Families.
  3. Develop non-academic assessments. A handful of states are implementing assessments to gauge how well schools help students develop social-emotional skills and serve other non-academic needs. Massachusetts should join the fray by working with communities to pilot these new tools.
Meet the Author

Mary Walsh

Founder, City Connects
Meet the Author

Andre Ravenelle

Superintendent , Fitchburg Public Schools
As advocates for children, Governor Baker and state education leaders can send a signal that Massachusetts will not let non-academic needs limit the potential of any child. Working together, the state can better position communities to individually tailor student supports and keep all children on a path to lifelong success.

Andre Ravenelle is president of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and Superintendent of the Fitchburg Public Schools. Mary Walsh is a clinical-developmental psychologist and Kearns Professor of Urban Education and Innovative Leadership at the Boston College Lynch School of Education, and founder of City Connects.