‘Wraparound’ services helping kids succeed

Expansion of City Connects program to Springfield yielding results

WHEN CHILDREN WALK into their schools, they make everyone feel what they feel.  Teachers, principals, even superintendents can all feel the burdens students carry, especially those who struggle with poverty and despair. Some children talk about their challenges. Others don’t. Either way, educators and administrators feel the weight of the hunger, homelessness, mental health challenges, incarceration of parents, and other hardships that many children bear. We have to feel it, because being connected to children is the only way that we can successfully do our jobs.

Feeling, of course, isn’t enough, which is why Springfield school officials have spent years trying to overcome the barriers that children face outside school so that they can thrive in school, build strong social and emotional skills, and do better on statewide tests like the MCAS and PARCC exams.

We’re always looking for new ways to do this work. In 2010, when we saw Boston schools taking part in the City Connects program – a project based at Boston College that connects each student to a tailored array of services and enrichment programs – we thought the approach could work in Springfield. Evidence showed that City Connects was working in Boston.

Studies show that students in City Connects elementary schools in Boston have better grades in reading and math, and better work habits. When followed into 8th grade, students who attended a City Connects elementary school significantly outperformed their peers on statewide tests of English language arts and math, narrowing achievement gaps by half to two-thirds. Students who attended City Connects elementary schools were roughly half as likely as their peers to drop out of high school.

As explained on the City Connects website, the program works to provide children with the types of support outside the classroom that will help them succeed in the classroom.

As explained on the City Connects website, the program works to provide children with the types of support outside the classroom that will help them succeed in the classroom.

Seeing evidence of effectiveness, we chose to set up City Connects in Springfield using funding from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Wraparound Zones Initiative.

In 2011, City Connects launched in five consistently low-performing Springfield schools that the state had declared “transformation” schools. We hired a program manager to oversee the effort across the schools, and expanded to eight schools in 2012 and to 15 schools this year. Each school is staffed with a site coordinator.

Each fall, site coordinators sit down with every teacher to do a whole class review, a student-by-student look at barriers to learning and healthy development. We identify each student’s needs, and importantly, their strengths, everything from a positive attitude to a talent for arts or just having a big heart.

Science is on our side. Researchers repeatedly tell us that children’s brains are harmed by growing up in disadvantaged circumstances and by toxic stress – which includes abuse, neglect, violence, caregiver substance abuse, or mental illness, and the hardships of severe poverty. City Connects helps us by addressing each child’s unique combination of stressors.

Our site coordinator connects each child to a customized set of needed services, from food and clothes to eye exams and dental care. On Fridays, we fill children’s backpacks with food to ensure they eat over the weekend. Sometimes we deliver beds to families who are sleeping on the floor. City Connects also links children to afterschool and summer programs, enriching experiences that can help expand children’s worlds.

The beauty of this work is that the resources already exist. City Connects is fueled by over 100 community partners with programs and staff that are already out there waiting to help.

We’re up against a lot. When we started, 92 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Many were English language learners, and many of our families were moving in and out of schools.

Fortunately, we’ve also learned a lot. One crucial lesson is that we can change children’s lives just by providing them with resources that already exist, connecting each child to the right service at the right time. City Connects also meshed well with our existing efforts, including PBIS, the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program, which focuses on building students’ academic and social and emotional skills.

We also found that, initially, we had high turnover among our site coordinators. The job’s pay and benefits weren’t strong enough to retain people. So when the Wraparound Zone funding ran out, we put the site coordinators into our school budget – and we unionized these jobs. That has enabled us to attract and retain higher-quality staff members.

The pivotal victory? City Connects is helping Springfield’s kids. A rigorous study found that after three years of implementing City Connects in previously underperforming schools, there was no longer a significant gap in test scores between students in those schools and students in the rest of the district. Two of Springfield’s City Connects schools have moved up to become Level 1 schools, the highest rank in the state education department’s accountability system. The other three schools in the study have moved up to Level 3.

We’ve also seen our teachers change. Students’ challenging behaviors and poor work habits are easier to understand and address when teachers know a child is staying in a homeless shelter or witnessing violence at home. In a satisfaction survey, 83 percent of responding teachers said they used this knowledge to tailor their teaching strategies by using small group work, movement, and more visuals to reach children with different learning styles, and 89 percent said they would recommend City Connects to a colleague.

Principals’ ratings concur. One hundred percent say they would recommend City Connects to other principals, while 91 percent say they’ve seen improvements in academic achievement, classroom behavior, health and well-being, and school climate.  And principals who don’t have City Connects in their schools are asking how they can get it.

This is no accident. Springfield’s success matches outcomes in City Connects schools across the country. Feed kids, address the trauma in their lives, provide them with care and needed services, and they will prosper. Their brains will get sturdier. And they will become healthier and develop into stronger learners.

The upshot? To improve students’ educational outcomes, we must address the challenges in their lives that interfere with learning. To close the opportunity and achievement gaps in Massachusetts — and nationally – we have to look at the needs of the whole child. City Connects is one cost-effective way to do this. Economists at Columbia University found that City Connects produces a return on investment to society of $3 for every $1 spent. Children who benefit from this investment may well become the workers who fuel our state’s economy in the future.

We need to make this kind of investment in more of our schools. Districts need sufficient funding to provide integrated, comprehensive support for kids that capitalizes on existing resources. We hope this will be a priority for Gov. Baker and the Legislature as they negotiate the state budget — and as the state education department and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education implement new criteria for school accountability.

Meet the Author

Daniel J. Warwick

Superintendent, Springfield Public Schools
Meet the Author

Mary Walsh

Professor of Urban Education, Boston College
As one principal in a Springfield City Connects school said, children were falling through the cracks because help that already exists was beyond their reach. We’ll all be better off if we can catch those kids and connect them to what they need, so that we can prepare them — and the Commonwealth — for brighter futures.

Daniel J. Warwick is superintendent of the Springfield Public Schools. Mary Walsh is the Daniel E. Kearns Professor of Urban Education & Innovative Leadership at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College and the executive director of City Connects.