Could new initiative bridge achievement gap?

| August 27, 2015 | 0 Comments

7 urban Catholic schools take up the challenge

Courtesy City Connects

Courtesy City Connects

Veteran educator that she is, Laurie Acker usually knew right away when something was troubling a student that had nothing to do with school.

“You could tell at the beginning of the day when a child needed something,” recalled Acker, a teacher and principal for almost 20 years. “At times what they needed was food — maybe they hadn’t eaten all weekend because there was no food in the house.”

Research shows that learning takes a back seat when a child is hungry, is worried about violence in the neighborhood or is troubled by issues such as the family’s immigration status. Academic performance is also negatively impacted when a student has an untreated illness or social, emotional or behavioral issues like difficulty making friends.

All are factors that contribute to the achievement gap, the phrase commonly used to explain the difference between the academic test scores of minority and low-income students and the test scores of white and Asian students.

As the then director of urban education for the schools office of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Acker was looking for something to help urban Catholic schools close the achievement gap when she came across City Connects.

An initiative of Boston College’s Lynch School of Education, City Connects had for more than a decade shown proven advances in closing the achievement gap in urban schools in several cities.

It works by providing each student in a school with a tailored support plan that connects students to the help and services they need, thus helping the child engage and learn in school.

“I was amazed at how effective it was,” said Acker, who left her position with the archdiocese in December. Last fall she invited leaders of urban Catholic schools to a presentation by Mary Walsh, Boston College professor and City Connects founder, and Patrice DiNatale, Walsh’s associate.

“After hearing Mary and Pat, one of the principals said, ‘I want to start right now,’” Acker said with a smile.

Thanks to a three-year, $1.9 million grant from Twin Cities-based GHR Foundation, City Connects will launch this fall in the archdiocese at seven urban Catholic elementary schools: Ascension, Risen Christ, Pope John Paul II and St. Helena in Minneapolis; St. Jerome in Maplewood; Blessed Trinity in Richfield, and St. Pascal Baylon in St. Paul. They are among the 74 sites where City Connects is active; other sites are in Massachusetts, New York and Ohio.

GHR is the family philanthropy created by Opus founder Gerald Rauenhorst and his wife, Henrietta, both of whom are now deceased.

GHR chief executive officer and chairwoman Amy Goldman noted in a press release that the foundation chose to partner with City Connects because of its proven track record in which students in both public and private schools showed significantly greater improvement than peers in comparison schools in statewide standardized tests, report card grades, classroom behavior, work habits and effort.

Identifying strengths, needs

In an email interview, Boston College’s Walsh told The Catholic Spirit, “Research makes clear that two-thirds of the significant and stubborn achievement gap for kids is related to the out-of-school challenges that children can experience in their neighborhoods and families.”

City Connects works with each classroom teacher in a school to identify each student’s strengths and needs and then, through a site coordinator, links the child to appropriate services in the community, Walsh explained.

Site coordinators also might make students and their families aware of enrichment opportunities — for example, music lessons available in the community but not at the student’s school — because research also shows that those kinds of activities help students thrive academically and socially.

Acker, now City Connects’ Twin Cities program manager, said, “I know this going to help these schools.

“We have great teachers and great learning environments, and we have so many resources in the Twin Cities,” she added. “This is going to allow teachers to teach while the site coordinators find resources to help students and families.”

Connecting school, home

It’s telling that a bulletin board just inside the door of Risen Christ School at 37th Street and 12th Avenue on the south side of Minneapolis reads “Bienvenidos” and not “Welcome.”

And it’s why school president Mike Rogers perks up noticeably when explaining academic performance charts that are evidence of City Connects’ success.

One graph shows how students in the City Connects program who started out with a lower average reading score than their peers not only caught up to the others, but also surpassed them.

When he flips to the next chart that shows even greater progress in reading achieved by students for whom English is a second language, Rogers points to the rising curve on the graph and says, “That’s what really excites me, that academic piece. The majority of our students are Spanish speakers.”

At Risen Christ, 95 percent of school families earn income low enough for the 300-plus students to receive free or reduced-price lunch at school each day; 93 percent report that a language other than English is spoken in their home.

“With the majority of students coming from poverty, they experience a lot of stressors you and I haven’t experienced,” Rogers said, naming hunger, immigration concerns and low family education levels among contributing factors.

“The effect those stresses have is huge. We can have a huge effect when the child is in our building, but school is isolated from out-of-school factors,” he said.

The connections that the City Connects site coordinators help families make have proven to have an impact on the child’s academic performance, said Rogers, who briefly this year assumed directorship of urban education for the archdiocese. The position was dissolved with the Office for Catholic Schools’ closure in June. The office was replaced by the Office for the Mission of Catholic Education.

“Especially in our Catholic schools, we don’t have a person to find all the resources available in the community,” Rogers added, “and it would be even harder in smaller schools.”

Walsh, the program’s founder, put it this way: “Schools cannot be expected to do everything.

“The task of responding to every need of every child would overwhelm their human and financial resources. Their main responsibility is to educate children,” she explained.

“We have known for a long time that ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’” she added. “Communities offer many opportunities and services to children and families. What is needed is a process and structure to make the right connections, for the right child to the appropriate community program or service. The City Connects program fills that need.”

Rogers said he was particularly impressed with the systematic way the City Connects site coordinators will create a plan for and track each student at Risen Christ, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school that serves children from several south Minneapolis parishes.

“They’ll look at the data we have on the student, have a written plan for each student, track the student, check in with the student, check in with the family,” he said. “It’s pretty impressive, and it’s shown to work very well.”

Walsh, who now has nurtured City Connects for nearly 15 years, sees the initiative as aligned with the social justice mission of Boston College, located in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, and its commitment to educate and care for the whole person — “the mission of all Catholic education more generally,” she pointed out.

Risen Christ’s Rogers agreed. “Ours is an education in faith and an education for life,” he said.

“If we can help families and students get the resources to lift them up out of poverty, that’s our goal,” Rogers said. “We hope we are showing our students and families the image of Christ.”

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Category: Back to School, Featured