Mark Griffin starts every weekday standing at the door of the Thomas Edison K8 School in Brighton: “Great hat!” “Don’t you look good today!” “How’re you making out?”
His pleasantries are a nice way to start the day, but they also have a point. As Griffin greets more than 400 students each morning, he’s looking to see who is shivering in a too-thin coat, whose eyes look rimmed with tears, which parents are walking their kids to school and staying for the free breakfast themselves.
“It’s hard to concentrate on schoolwork when there are other things much more important to them that need to be addressed,” Griffin said.
Nearly all students at Edison are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, which means they come from families that lack middle-class advantages.
That’s where Griffin comes in. He’s employed by a program called City Connects that helps Edison kids with needs that extend outside of the classroom.
The program — started more than a decade ago by educators at Boston College — is based on the simple idea that a child distracted by pain, fear, or deprivation can’t possibly do as well in school as a child without those challenges. So City Connects tries to resolve as many of those issues as possible — whether that’s buying Christmas presents, fighting obesity, getting students into drawing lessons, or helping kids negotiate playground bullies.
In a new study, students who went through Boston schools with a City Connects program, like Edison, were shown to drop out of high school at half the rate of their peers from other schools.
City Connects is now in 62 schools in Boston, Springfield, and Dayton, Ohio, serving 20,000 students, most of whom are among the most disadvantaged in their communities.
“It’s a systemic strategy for school districts and schools that enables them to wrap services around students and address the out-of-school factors that impact kids’ learning, like health,” said Mary Walsh, who launched City Connects in 2001 and is a professor of Urban Education at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education.
City Connects links schools with existing programs — it counts more than 380 partners in Boston alone. Because most schools don’t have the staff to manage those partnerships, City Connects employs someone like Griffin for every 400 students.
The City Connects coordinators at each school are responsible for meeting with every classroom teacher during the first six weeks of the school year to go over the needs of each student. The 10 percent of students with extra needs might be the focus of a special meeting, Walsh said. For the rest of the year, the coordinator makes sure plans are being followed, needs are being met, and partnerships fostered.
One morning last winter for instance, Griffin noticed a child trudging to school through 3 inches of snow wearing bedroom slippers. A quick investigation revealed that the boy was homeless and his family couldn’t afford other footwear. Before the last bell that day, Griffin had arranged to get the boy a new coat, boots, and warm hat.
“It doesn’t take care of everything,” Griffin said. “He’s still homeless. But at least it’s one less thing mom has to worry about. One less thing he has to worry about.”
Other children might have nothing to do in the afternoons or over the summer, so Griffin and his peers make sure they’re enrolled in afterschool programs, enrichment classes, and summer camps.
Griffin, who has a master’s degree in school counseling, takes special care of children who are having trouble adjusting to school life, getting into fights, or struggling to find friends. He’ll eat lunch with a few of them every day; match others with counselors or Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“To me it’s really about connecting with students,” he said.
There’s also a crucial health component to City Connects. Children who can’t see the blackboard or whose teeth hurt can’t learn as well, so City Connects partners with local dental and optometry programs, screening thousands of students a year.
“City Connects looks at the barriers [to learning] and removes them,” said Dr. Linda Grant, medical director of the Boston Public Schools.
Getting a pair of eyeglasses on an elementary school child is the easy part, said Dr. Bruce Moore, a professor of pediatric studies at the New England College of Optometry. The trick is keeping young children with their glasses. To that end, the New England Eye On-Sight program, which Moore runs, will provide eyewear to be kept at school, so students don’t have to worry about forgetting their glasses at home and wasting a day of learning.
By working with the school and teachers, City Connects also guarantees that someone at school knows that the child has glasses and needs to wear to them. A school nurse simply doesn’t have the capability — while juggling kids with asthma, allergies, ADHD, and a host of other problems — to make sure the right children are wearing glasses.
City Connects also allows Eye On-Sight to deliver services more efficiently and make sure that the work they do doesn’t need to be redone, said Paulette Tattersall, pediatric program director of Eye On-Sight. Out of more than 550 City Connects kids scanned, one-third required glasses, she said — far more than the 20 percent for typical elementary school students — suggesting that the program is filling an important need.
Walsh, of BC, said she started developing City Connects in the late 1990s when the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began talking about the idea that health contributes to learning.
She said she knew right away that the schools would like her program. But she wasn’t convinced that focusing on these out-of-the-classroom issues would make a difference in academic achievement. Now, she said, she’s sure. “As much as any academic is convinced of anything.”
Walsh recently published results of a decade of studying City Connects in the American Educational Research Journal. In addition to the lower dropout rates, the study of 8,000 children found that City Connects students had higher scores on report cards while in elementary school and on English and math tests in middle school, compared to others in the Boston school district.
Other research suggests that two-thirds of the achievement gap between high- and low-performing students is explained by the out-of-school needs of kids in poverty. MCAS scores are highly correlated with poverty, for instance.
Walsh said City Connects’ results are due to the actual interventions, not just to adding caring adults to students’ lives. There are plenty of caring adults in every school system. And with a 400-to-1 student ratio, the City Connects coordinator can’t spend that much time with any one child, she said.
But the program clearly works, said Walsh, who is now beginning a study to follow City Connects kids into their early 20s.
“If you start these kids off early and well and give them what they need,” Walsh said, “they have a much better chance of having a decent and happy life.”
HOW TO HELP
To make a donation to the City Connects program, contact Boston College’s Office of University Advancement at 617-552-9169, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karen Weintraub can be reached at email@example.com.