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More on Turning Schools Around

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In a recent blog post about turning around chronically low performing schools, I stressed the critical importance of principal leadership in making such turnarounds possible.

In response, I heard from staff at City Connects, a non-profit organization that addresses out-of-school factors that affect learning (hunger, homelessness, violence, etc.) in the Boston and Springfield, MA, public schools. Many of these are turnaround schools. City Connects Executive Director and Boston College Professor of Education Mary E. Walsh, wrote: "While strong school leadership is imperative, we believe that it is unfair to ask schools and teachers to bear sole responsibility for closing the economic divide. 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 fact, our results show that the positive impact of City Connects is greater than the negative impact of poverty when considering student growth in academic achievements across grades 1-5."

At City Connects, trained School Site Coordinators work with teachers and school staff to look at the whole child across four domains: academics, social/emotional/behavioral, health and family. Together, they identify the in- and out-of-school factors affecting every student and match students to community- and school-based services and enrichment activities most appropriate for their individual strengths and needs. The current work is in K-5/K-8 schools with pilots underway for early childhood and high school models.

The results they report are impressive. For a cost of less than $500 per child, they are helping to break through achievement gaps. I believe this program (and others like it), in conjunction with strong development of principals, should be replicated around the country to help turn around chronically low- performing schools.

The City Connects team has been collecting and analyzing data for 10 years that demonstrate their approach to addressing non-school factors significantly improves academic performance and narrows the achievement gap. Briefly, their students are doing better onstandardized tests, have lessretention in grade andchronic absenteeism, and are less likely to drop out of school than students who are never part of City Connects. Full evaluation results are available in their annual report here.

Their annual report notes: "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, 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 and improve service delivery and student outcomes; and 6) implemented in all sites with fidelity and oversight.

The City Connects annual report is definitely worth studying and considering for scaling to more districts, especially those with high concentrations of students living in poverty. The report concludes: "City Connects has shown that optimized student support can be delivered in a high-impact, cost-effective way. By making use of existing structures in the public schools, and by leveraging the rich resources of the city's community agencies, City Connects is able to link students to the services and enrichments that match their individual strengths and needs. Careful attention to the unique skills, talents and needs of each student makes a difference."

In Kentucky we have been quite fortunate to have Family Resource and Youth Services Centers in elementary and secondary schools respectively. These programs, funded from the state level, are structured to do this same type of work and have been successful in the past. However, their budgets have been cut to the bone and they cannot provide the services at the same levels they have been able to provide in the past. We must invest in programs that work and this is just one more example.

When effective programs make a strong impact, we must find ways to replicate them as we move forward. As advocates in your communities I encourage you to study these models, work with your school districts and implement similar programs to help our kids.

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