Mary E. Walsh

Support All Students to Close the Achievement Gap

City Connects

More than 16 million children in the United States live in poverty, which dramatically affects their ability to come to school ready to learn and thrive. The latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics' The Condition of Education 2013 (PDF) report shows that one in five schools was considered high poverty in 2011, an increase from one in eight schools in 2000.

Even the significant investment the United States has made in developing strong curricula and talented teachers is not adequate to ensure that all children can succeed. Research shows that only one-third of the achievement gap can be attributed to the quality of a student's in-school experiences. The other two-thirds is linked to the nonacademic factors that impact children, many of which are greatly exacerbated by poverty. These "out-of-school" factors can include hunger, homelessness, unaddressed medical concerns, violence, and lack of access to important enrichments like arts or athletics. The evidence is clear: until we address poverty, the achievement gap will persist.

How can schools, with their limited resources, address these barriers to learning? Traditionally, the approach has been through "student support," a catchall phrase whose definition varies from school to school and district to district. Typically, it encompasses the role of counselors. Often, only the most vulnerable and at-risk students receive the lion's share of the attention.

Student support can be approached differently, in a way that dramatically enhances its effectiveness. It works best when delivered in a comprehensive, systematic approach to each and every student in a school. Grounded in research on child development and the need that it be implemented as a core function of schools, optimized student support has six identifying characteristics. It is

  1. Customized to the unique strengths, needs, and interests of each student;
  2. Comprehensive, serving the academic, social/emotional/behavioral, health, and family needs of all students from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds;
  3. Coordinated among families, schools, and community agencies;
  4. Cost-effective to schools by leveraging the resources provided by community agencies;
  5. Continuously monitored for effectiveness through collecting and analyzing data to evaluate its effectiveness and improve service delivery; and
  6. Implemented in all sites with fidelity and oversight.

With these best practices in mind, and with the collaboration of Boston College, Boston Public Schools, and local community agencies, I led a team that created a systematic student support practice called City Connects in 1998. A full-time school site coordinator in each school works with teachers and school staff to review each and every child's individual strengths and needs in four areas: academics, social/emotional/behavioral, health, and family. Together, the coordinator and teacher identify the in- and out-of-school factors impacting students. Each student is then connected to a tailored set of community- and school-based services and enrichment activities most appropriate for their individual strengths and needs.

Systematically addressing out-of-school factors can help students achieve and removes the burden from teachers, allowing them to focus on delivering quality instruction. In an anonymous survey of teachers who work in City Connects schools, the majority reported that they are providing more differentiated instruction and rewards systems because they know more about their students. They are also more thoughtful and patient as a result of understanding more about their students' lives.

Evaluation of 10 years of data demonstrates that City Connects' approach to addressing out-of-school factors significantly improves academic performance and narrows the achievement gap. Students who attended City Connects elementary schools outperform their peers on standardized tests in middle school. They are less likely to be retained in grade, be chronically absent, and drop out of high school than students who were not in City Connects.

As City Connects' evidence shows, comprehensive student support is an essential component of any strategy aiming to close the achievement gap. Systematically addressing the out-of-school factors impacting students will give every child the opportunity to learn and thrive.

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.

Comments (1)

Candis

June 12, 2013

As an educator for 14 years, my experience resonates with your emphasis on the non-school factors.  I am now working with a team of educators and a professional film and tech crew to address this need to equip and inspire parents and other caregivers to understand the rigor of today’s schools and nurture thinking and language in the context of family and community.  Our new resource is called ReadyRosie and consists of a daily email to parents with videos of real English and Spanish-speaking families modeling 2 minute literacy or math conversations in locations like the car, laundromat, restaurant, bus, waiting room, etc.  The conversations are rooted in the CCSS but we model for parents how to play with the content in simple ways that do not require special materials. 
We are not ready to give up on families but we do know that schools need to improve the home-school connection.  We are choosing to reach parents where they are…on their phones or computers.  We would love your feedback and welcome you to view our free demo at http://readyrosiedemo.com/ready-rosie-intro-video/

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