In the 1990s, the Boston Public Schools district and its schools lacked a systematic approach to connect urban schoolchildren with the rich resources of the city’s community partners and to efficiently address the out-of-school factors impeding students’ academic success, especially for students living in poverty.
City Connects was created in 1999 as an evidence-based, scalable practice in Boston. It developed as a collaboration among Boston College, Boston Public Schools, and community agencies. With its foundations in the “full-service” or community school model, and after an extensive community-wide planning process, City Connects allows districts and schools to wrap needed supports, enrichments, and services around students in order to address barriers standing in the way of school success. The practice engages every classroom teacher, leverages community resources, and ensures that each student receives the tailored supports and enrichment opportunities necessary to learn effectively and thrive in school.
Due to its success, City Connects has been successfully replicated and scaled. It is currently implemented in schools in other districts in Massachusetts and in New York, Connecticut, Ohio, and Minnesota.
Strategy for Change
Grounded in evidence, City Connects is a system that takes advantage of resources and structures already present in schools. As a hub of student support, the City Connects school site coordinator (a new or existing school counselor or social worker) in each school meets with each classroom teacher and other school staff to identify each child’s strengths and unmet needs. Each student is then connected to a tailored set of services and enrichment opportunities in the school and/or community.
Using their knowledge of the particular needs of the school, and of gaps in existing services, school site coordinators cultivate partnerships with community agencies, serving as a point of contact for the school. They collaborate closely with families to facilitate access to supports and enrichments. They also use proprietary software to document, track, and report on service referrals for each student, and they follow up to assure service delivery, and assess effectiveness.
City Connects draws on a variety of public and private partners to deliver aligned student supports. Its work in Boston Public Schools, its longest-running site, illustrates this collaboration.
- Boston Public Schools— In 2014–15, City Connects was operating in 20 Boston public schools with over 8,000 students (pre-K to 8). Approximately half of the students in City Connect schools speak a language other than English at home, and over 80 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
- Community Agencies—A critical role of the City Connects school site coordinator is developing and maintaining partnerships with community agencies and institutions. In Boston, City Connects has cultivated more than 320 community partnerships that provide resources and support to students and their families. The range of enrichment opportunities and services encompasses prevention, early intervention, and crisis intervention. Partners include:
- Public: Boston Centers for Youth and Families, Boston Public Health Commission, and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.
- Private: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mass. Bay, Boys & Girls Club, Salvation Army, and YMCA of Greater Boston.
- Higher Education Institutions: University-based programs include the Boston University Initiative for Literacy Development and the CIVICS Program at Harvard University, a tutoring program at Boston College, and health programs at Tufts Medical Center.
- Leadership—City Connects maintains its partnerships with Boston’s community agencies and institutions by convening school-level as well as city-wide meetings of representatives from the school system and community. In addition to sharing aggregate data on services and outcomes, these gatherings focus on issues of current concern, such as support for immigrant families, family engagement, and the impact of student health on achievement. The meetings also serve as a way for agencies located across the city to share updates and discover areas of potential synergy.
- Boston College—The Center for Optimized Student Support at Boston College co-designed and led the implementation of City Connects in schools, and Boston College’s Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Education Policy collects, analyzes, and reports on City Connects data. External experts provide independent reviews of the initiative’s methods, results, and conclusions.
In order to fulfill its mission of addressing barriers to learning, City Connects works with its coalition partners to provide a range of supports for students and their families.
- Assessment—Each school has a licensed school counselor or social worker who serves as a City Connects school site coordinator. There is one coordinator for about every 400 students. The School Site Coordinator works with each teacher to review the strengths and needs of every student in his or her class through a process called the Whole Class Review, which helps identify individual students’ strengths and needs across academic, social/emotional/ behavioral, physical health, and family domains.
- Development of Support Plans—The School Site Coordinator then develops a customized support plan for each student that addresses his or her individual strengths and needs. City Connects is unique in that it focuses heavily not only on meeting student’s needs, but on enhancing their assets. Any given student may receive services in any combination of the following three categories:
- Prevention and enrichment (e.g., sports and physical activity, before- and after-school programs, classes in music, drama, or the arts).
- Early intervention (e.g., tutoring, mentoring, behavior plans, health supports, family outreach).
- Intensive or crisis intervention (e.g., intensive mental health and medical services, violence intervention).
- Development of Partnerships—The school site coordinator identifies and locates appropriate school- and/or community-based services and enrichments and helps establish the connections between these service providers and individual children and their families.
- Follow-up—City Connects tracks referrals and service delivery with a proprietary electronic data management system, the Student Support Information System (SSIS), which also houses a database of all City Connects community partners. This system supports appropriate and secure record-keeping at the individual and school level, monitoring and evaluating the implementation of the City Connects practice throughout the school year, and enabling research to be conducted on the effectiveness of the interventions.1
- School-based supports. Across districts, City Connects leverages and builds on resources already existing in the schools.
- For example, City Connects works with districts to reinvigorate the work of school counselors, offering successful practices from its model. Therefore, even though this may involve offering new training to existing employees, it can be considered analogous to teachers implementing a new reading or mathematics curriculum, rather than to a change in job description.
- In addition, school site coordinators provide and/or refer to within-school services that might include: “1) small social skills groups on a time-limited basis addressing focused topics such as making friends, bullying, and healthy eating; 2) crisis intervention for individual or small groups of children; and 3) family outreach and support addressing specific family needs that are affecting the child’s performance in school.”2
- In an anonymous electronic survey, teachers report high levels of satisfaction with City Connects. For example, 97 percent of teachers surveyed in Boston Public Schools would recommend City Connects to a colleague.3 One Boston teacher says:
Our City Connects coordinator is … not only resourceful and proactive because she establishes and strengthens relationships with community partners, but she simply knows and cares about the students. Talking with her about individuals is always helpful to understanding how students think, get motivated, and ultimately learn.
City Connects’ success in supporting students, its expansion within Boston Public Schools and to other districts and states, and its ability to become self-sustaining is due in large part to specific practices and policies, both internal to the initiative and based at the state and local level.
Involvement of District Leadership
School-level efforts tend to be relatively easy to coordinate. The bigger challenge is knitting them together and aligning them with (and getting support for them from) district-level practices.
- City Connects has benefitted from the start from such support, in particular collaboration with then-Boston Public Schools superintendent Thomas Payzant. The school district did not provide financial support at the outset, but rather offered the use of data to drive practice—reflecting the superintendent’s deep commitment across all aspects of education. The superintendent annually reviewed City Connects’ outcomes, advised the initiative on direction, and supported fundraising efforts. As noted by Mary Walsh, executive director of City Connects and Daniel Kearns Professor at Boston College, “The superintendent’s commitment to an evidence base was aligned with our goals and made it easier to enter Boston Schools.”
- In Springfield (Mass.) Public Schools, where City Connects has been working since 2010, the district builds site coordinator salaries into its budget and has a licensing agreement with City Connects. The agreement includes professional development and training, coaching, program evaluation, fidelity monitoring, technical assistance, and access to the SSIS data system.
- Involvement with district leadership includes alignment with the priorities of city leadership. In Boston, for example, both current Mayor Martin Walsh and prior Boston Mayor Thomas Menino have been dedicated to improving educational outcomes and increasing opportunity for all of Boston’s students. Early in his tenure, Mayor Walsh created a new position, chief of education for the City of Boston, and appointed Rahn Dorsey, formerly a program officer at the Barr Foundation (a longtime funder of City Connects). According to a press release from the mayor’s office:
The newly-created position is reflective of Mayor Walsh’s campaign promise to implement a long-term strategy based on equity, access, accountability, transparency, and collaboration among all educational platforms in the City of Boston.4
Focus on Resilience and Enhancing Student Strengths
While City Connects emphasizes that the needs of its low-income students and students of color are extensive, it also believes strongly that students bring unique assets to their classrooms, and that identifying and working to nurture those strengths is key to engaging students and, ultimately, helping them succeed and thrive in school and beyond. Many students struggle with reading and math proficiency, says Executive Director Mary Walsh, which makes such subjects as music, art, and physical activity all the more important.
- The practice of assessing every students means that teachers and schools can focus not only on needs but on strengths, with the implicit objective of building resilience.
- City Connects enables students to leverage the rich variety of cultural offerings that Boston has to offer, including a wide range of museums, arts classes, and more.
- City Connects is focused not only on students in serious need, but on a broader range of students who stand to benefit from an emphasis on enrichment over remediation. One example is the small-group health promotion workshops developed and tested by City Connects, which explore such issues as getting along with peers and handling frustration with teachers productively.
State Education Reform Act
State Education Reform policies have included a focus on supporting students with extensive out-of-school challenges.
- City Connects has been designated by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as a “Priority Partner” in the state’s efforts to promote wraparound services in school districts.5 This designation allowed districts seeking a wraparound strategy as a lever for school turnaround to choose City Connects as the provider.
- The State also supported City Connects to study sustainability for interventions that address out-of-school challenges for children living in poverty.
Massachusetts adopted universal pre-K in 2007. The program started with $4.6 million, and later received $12.1 million in 2009.6 City Connects has begun to align its implementation with this emphasis on early childhood by expanding the intervention to this age group. With support from the Better Way Foundation, City Connects has implemented an Early Childhood adaptation of City Connects in all of its sites that serve an early childhood population.7
Health care policy changes have made it possible for City Connects staff to refer students to essential routine and episodic health care services.
- In 2006, Governor Mitt Romney passed health reform to provide near-universal health insurance coverage for Massachusetts that included an individual mandate. The proportion of the state’s population that had health insurance rose from 90 percent to 98 percent, the highest in the country, and as of 2011, virtually all children—99.8 percent—had health insurance coverage.8
- The law also expanded Medicaid enrollment for adults and children with disabilities and the long-term unemployed and raised the family income ceiling for the Children’s Health Insurance Program from 200 percent of the federal poverty level to 300 percent.9
- While CityConnects has no direct access to Medicaid funds, it has established a consistent practice of talking to families and providers about drawing on Medicaid coverage to support both physical and mental health services. The initiative also ensures that it refers students who require such care to insurance-eligible providers.10
Although state and federal policies have generally been limited in their inclusion of student support initiatives, City Connects has been able to engage in school “turnaround” efforts through federal School Improvement Grants (SIGs) as well as leveraging state-level policies.
- As part of the state’s federal Race to the Top grant, City Connects has been selected by district administrators as one of the levers for school turnaround in Level 4/5 schools. SIG funds also helped support some of these efforts.
- The state also has its own “Wraparound Zone” initiative parallel to efforts under federally funded SIG. Springfield, which was among the districts with schools targeted for wraparound turnaround models, chose City Connects to be its partner. Other districts chose to use self-described “homegrown models.”
- Student support was a priority of the previous state Secretary of Education, Paul Reville, but his proposal to fund it in Mass.’s 24 “Gateway Cities” was not approved in the governor’s 2013 budget.
The cost of City Connects is shared by public and private funders.
Some federal and state funding, including Race to the Top funding allocated by districts to City Connects, has helped to defray these costs. In addition, districts have contributed by including City Connects in their budgets.
City Connects has been supported by a number of foundations, including the Charles Hayden, Barr, New Balance, Mathile Family, and Better Way Foundations, Strategic Grant Partners, and the Philanthropic Initiative. These partners have supported central program implementation and/or evaluation.
The Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education at Columbia University recently conducted an independent analysis that estimated the cost to implement City Connects at about $250 per pupil per year (excluding the costs of community services). Under cost assumptions most consistent with data on implementation, the report estimates return on investment at 3:1, meaning society will save three dollars for every dollar invested in the City Connects model. If the costs to community partners are excluded, as they are in most benefit-cost analyses of comparable programs, the benefit-cost ratio is 11:1.11
Indicators of Progress
These comprehensive changes to how schools are structured and the way they link students to needed supports have resulted in a range of benefits, both academic and other.12
Student performance and principal satisfaction measures document academic and student gains.
- Over a decade of rigorous, peer-reviewed research on City Connects finds that students enrolled in a City Connects elementary school have significantly higher performance in both academic and so-called noncognitive skills not only in those years, but also after they leave City Connects and enroll in secondary school.13 The benefits are often greatest for the most at-risk students, particularly English Language Learners.
- Although they have similar rates of chronic absenteeism in elementary and middle school, where absenteeism is not a major problem, by high school (where it is), City Connects students have significantly lower rates than their comparison peers.14
- City Connects elementary school students achieve higher scores than their non–City Connects peers in reading and math on the Stanford Achievement Test version 9 (SAT-9).15 Effect sizes were large, between one quarter and half of a standard deviation. City Connects students also do better on other, noncognitive outcomes contributing to academic success: behavior, effort, and work habits.
- Students previously enrolled in City Connects elementary schools achieve significantly higher scores on state-wide standardized tests.
- Students previously enrolled in City Connects are more likely to attend one of three of Boston’s selective public high schools (“exam schools”), with the odds of exam school attendance increasing for each year a student participated in City Connects.
- Students who participated in City Connects in kindergarten through fifth grade are less likely to be held back in a grade and are only about half as likely as comparison students to drop out of high school.
- Principals and teachers are highly satisfied with City Connects. In both Boston and Springfield, 100 percent of principals reported that they were satisfied with City Connects, and said that they would recommend City Connects to a principal in another school. Perhaps most important, 86 percent of Boston and 100 percent of Springfield principals indicated that City Connects has improved their schools’ delivery of student support.16
- While the rate of referrals of students to special education services has not decreased, City Connects staff reports that the referrals are more accurate. This means that those students who are referred to special education evaluations are more likely to have a disability and actually need special education services.
Ongoing Work in Boston
Following their initial close collaboration with City Connects, district leaders in Boston have promoted the achievement of several milestones.
- Based on promising data, district leaders enabled City Connects to launch a replication in eight additional schools in 2007.
- They provided critical support as funders weighed the evidence in funding decisions.
- When the district saw evidence of positive longitudinal outcomes in 2010, it not only asked for a further expansion to the newly identified Turnaround schools, but also agreed to contribute a portion of the costs.
- In 2014–15, City Connects was included as a line item for the first time in the Boston Public Schools budget.
- Currently, City Connects has a waiting list of schools seeking implementation if funds become available.
During its four years in Springfield, Mass., the district has asked City Connects to expand from six to 13 schools. Evidence of successful scaling is evident in measurements of fidelity of implementation of the City Connects model across program sites. In Springfield, for example, the 2014 Progress Report notes the reach indicated by measures of fidelity:
Across the Springfield schools implementing City Connects, 91% of Springfield City Connects students received at least one service. Additionally, more than 80% of the students received three or more district- or community-provided services. These percentages …are similar to Boston, where 98% of students received at least one service and 81% received three or more services.17
The success of City Connects has led to its use as an example of a comprehensive approach to education that can be scaled and adapted elsewhere, greatly enhancing its potential policy impact.
- Recently, in its Annual Report on the State of Education in the Commonwealth, the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy pointed to City Connects as a scalable, evidence-based approach for a robust statewide approach to student support.18 The report promoted investment in broader implementation of holistic assessments of student well-being, in addition to effective multiprovider models that allow schools and their partners to address a full range of student strengths.
- City Connects was recognized by Child Trends as one of three evidence-based approaches to addressing the out-of-school needs of students.19 This Washington-based independent organization conducts research on issues impacting children and informs policymakers through meetings, briefs, and reports.
1 Data from SSIS are used in City Connects’ fidelity monitoring system. The system provides quantitative evidence of the degree to which the model has been implemented as designed. Data from the system also provide key evidence for outcome evaluation.
3 City Connects (2014), p. 41–44
4 City of Boston, “Mayor Walsh Announces Cabinet-Level Chief of Education,” press release, September 3, 2014.
6 A.R. Fountain and B.G. Goodson, Massachusetts Universal Pre-kindergarten Pilot Evaluation, December 2008. Cambridge, MA: Abt Associates.
7 M. E. Walsh, John T. Lee-St. John, A. Raczek, C. Foley, and E. Sibley, “The City Connects Early Childhood Model: Implementation and Results.” Poster submitted to the annual meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Philadelphia, PA, April 2015.
9 It has since been up to the governor to implement the law. Almost 100 percent of children are covered by health insurance, and the focus now is to control the cost of healthcare, which has been increasing; originally 36 percent of the state budget in 2006, it was 43 percent in 2011.
10. Information from Elaine Weiss conversation with Mary Walsh, January 12, 2016.
12. All data points noted here are from the 2014 Progress Report unless otherwise indicated. The 2010 report compared Boston City Connects schools with 7 randomly selected comparison schools. The 2014 report compares all City Connects Boston to all non-City Connects Boston schools.
13. M.E. Walsh, G.F. Madaus, A.E. Raczek, E. Dearing, E., C. Foley, C. An, T.J. Lee-St. John, and A. Beaton, “A New Model for Student Support in High-poverty Urban Elementary Schools: Effects on Elementary and Middle School Academic Outcomes.” American Educational Research Journal, 51 (4), 704–737, July 7, 2014.
14. Based on 2001–2009 data, as reported in the 2012 progress report.
15. Because it is not a state standardized test, the SAT-9 is not subject to the “teaching to the test” nor other problems associated with trying to artificially inflate results. As City Connects notes, SAT-9 scores have been found to be strong predicators of high school graduation. As such, these data provide a useful comparison of meaningful improvement in academic outcomes that is likely the result of City Connects participation.
16. City Connects (2014), p.40.
17. City Connects (2014), pp.13–14.
18. Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, Achieving the Vision: Priority Actions for a Statewide Education Agenda, Boston, MA, Winter 2015.
19. K.A. Moore, S. Caal, R. Carney, L. Lippman, W. Li, K. Muenks, D. Murphey, D. Princiotta, A.N. Ramirez, A. Rojas, R. Ryberg, H. Schmitz, B. Stratford, and M.A. Terzian, Making the Grade: Assessing the Evidence for Integrated Student Supports, Child Trends. February 2014.