Beyond the Classroom: Initiative Addresses Out-of-School Factors to Boost Grades, Well-Being

From BizVoice, publication of Indiana Chamber of Commerce

INDIANAPOLIS – A second grader stares out the window on his way to school. Usually, the car ride is full of excited chatter and banter with his mom. But today there’s silence; recently she passed away. Now the commute is different. As the student arrives at school and steps out of the car, the math test taking place that morning is the last thing on his mind.

A high school junior tosses her keys on the kitchen table after an evening work shift. Exhausted, she plops down on the couch. Her apartment is cold; the heat is barely running. The reason she’s working is to help offset her family’s financial woes. Yawning, she wraps up in a blanket and turns on her tablet. Homework awaits.

These fictional scenarios illustrate how a student’s home life is intertwined with educational and overall success at school. Poverty, homelessness, illness, domestic violence and other issues heavily influence well-being.

City Connects, launched at Boston College 20-plus years ago, is an innovative concept designed to help children engage and learn in school by connecting them with customized intervention, prevention and enrichment services to thrive. The model has been implemented at public, private and charter schools.

The new Center for Vibrant Schools at Marian University launched a Midwest expansion in August 2021. The two-year pilot program includes 34 Hoosier schools (Gary, Indianapolis, Muncie and South Bend) and a technical assistance center housed at Marian, which also now oversees City Connects at a handful of Ohio schools where the initiative has been underway for more than a decade.

A recent study reveals long-term results of City Connects demonstrated at other participating schools. Examples include better performance on state tests, lower absenteeism, 50% reduction in high school dropout rates and increased likelihood in graduating from a two- or four-year college.

“If students are graduating from high school, they’re entering the workforce more prepared or entering college more prepared and there’s probably higher educational attainment – which we know in Indiana is really important when we’re talking about the employment pool that employers need,” explains Jillian Lain, director of City Connects Midwest at the Center for Vibrant Schools at Marian University. “So, there’s definitely some indirect correlation to the economic impact.”

How does City Connect work? Who’s involved? What progress is taking place in Indiana through the pilot thus far? Let’s dive in.

Holistic approach

A unique aspect of the program is the addition of a full-time site coordinator (also referred to as a City Connects coordinator, career coordinator, or in Muncie, a family navigator). He or she partners with the classroom teacher to conduct whole class reviews identifying every student’s strengths and needs in four developmental domains: academics; social, emotional and behavioral; family; and physical health.

“Traditionally, student support is really addressing the needs of highest-needs students and it’s oftentimes reactionary,” Lain comments. “City Connects is evaluating every single student. If a student just has some enrichment needs and needs to be connected to a science program or soccer team (for instance), there’s that piece of it. But there’s also a tiering of services that addresses the needs of those higher-needs students.”

Those with more immediate and intensive needs receive individual reviews through collaboration with members of the schools’ existing student support team (e.g., principal, social worker, psychologist, counselor, family liaison and behavior coach).

“The site coordinator’s core responsibility is to coordinate those annual assessments of every single student in every single classroom,” Lain describes. “It allows everyone in their specialized areas to bring suggested interventions to the table. Then the site coordinator works with each of those individuals to make sure that they’re implemented.”

Career Academy South Bend is a public charter school network in northern Indiana. It consists of three schools. Two – Success Academy South Bend (kindergarten through fifth grade) and ninth and 12th graders at Career Academy High School – are participating in City Connects.

Jen Martin is passionate about making a difference in kids’ lives. She’s been a social worker at Success Academy for five years. This is her first also serving as the site coordinator.

Eagerly, she describes the MyConnects web-based “scoring” system.

“It’s fabulous (and user friendly). Maybe for this kiddo, reading is a strength, but math is more of a need (for example), so I go through it and check that as a need and there’s (several) tiers.

“With Tier Three (the highest), we’re really taking a close look at those kids. As we go through and we score everything, that gives us the opportunity to look at these numbers and make sure we’re giving the attention that’s needed to the kids that need it the most.”

Community partnerships

Leveraging relationships with community organizations, non-profits and employers is a key component of the City Connects model. A large portion of City Connects funding is provided by an Indiana Department of Education Student Learning Recovery Grant. The city of Muncie helped fund family navigator positions at four Muncie Community Schools (MCS). The goal is to hire a fifth this year, with assistance from Ball State University.

Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, affectionately dubbed Dr. K, is director of public education and CEO of MCS.

“City Connects actually helped us with a data piece for how do we gather information and monitor to make sure that we’re doing our best work possible for students.

“We just know that in some of our schools, we have students that have more obstacles and greater need. We believe in a cradle-to-career community-based approach. We know we can’t do this work alone. And that we have to rely on our community to support us. We understand the value of partners.”

Among the partners is Meridian Health Services, a progressive health care organization that believes in treating the “whole-person” – integrating physical, mental and social well-being. It operates an on-site medical clinic at South Side Middle School providing primary care, behavioral health and nursing services. The clinic is open to anyone in the community.

“It’s for an underserved population – really a Medicaid population,” shares Lisa Suttle, regional vice president of clinical services at Meridian. “But there’s also a sliding scale, so if families make a certain amount of money, there’s an amount they pay. Most families fall below that, so there’s not a charge for them.

“The need is huge. Sometimes we see it and sometimes we don’t until maybe a kid comes in for a band-aid or something simple and then we catch that. For the schools, for the community and for us at Meridian, it’s a huge program that very much supports what’s need in our county.

“(You) hardly ever see somebody – kid’s, their family, teachers, whatever – where it’s just about medical health or it’s just about behavioral health. There’s usually underlying issues across the board. So, to have those resources connected and accessible is just amazing.”

Combatting learning loss

Educators have faced unprecedented challenges regarding COVID-19. With schools shut down for months in 2020 – and many moving to remote learning again in light of the virus’ current surge – one of the most pressing is learning loss.

“As the pandemic has continued, the problems related to inequality and the issues of inequity that were true before the pandemic have re-emerged and been exacerbated especially for families who were already struggling,” remarks Patrick McAllister, director of the Office of Education Innovation at the city of Indianapolis. “So, the decision to focus on comprehensive student-support services was a pretty clear one. We’re not going to address learning loss unless we also work with schools and communities to address the non-academic resource access gap that students and families have.”

Kwiatkowski seconds that. “We talk a lot about the “catch-up” academically, but there’s also catch-up in terms of the type of additional support services that student may or may not have had access to if they were home the past couple of years. And it might just be because it was a school-delivered program.”

Lain cites interpersonal skills. “Because they haven’t been in school – some of those social, emotional and out-of-school factors maybe haven’t been addressed over the last couple of years or not in the way that they normally would if they were in a school setting and in that structured environment.”


While the Midwest pilot program is designed to span two years, the goal is to continue City Connects long-term.

“A big part of our role will be to work with the schools and the districts to identify the ways in which they can make this permanent,” Lain imparts. “The longer the school is implementing City Connects, the greater the positive outcomes they’ll see.”

Martin observes, “I think that every school – if it would be possible to have this – would make a huge difference for Indiana. It gives a lot of structure to what we do and it really pulls together all of those different silos in the schools so we make sure the kids are getting what they need.”

Kwiatkowski says that while MCS is early in the implementation process, feedback has been positive.

“They set goals and (our family navigators) meet with them to see how they’re doing with their goals. The few students I’ve spoken to (share how) it’s making a difference in their lives already.”

Lain looks forward to the impact City Connects will have in Indiana.

“When we think about educational attainment and graduation – they’re (students) not only prepared to go to college, but they’re able to successfully complete high school. All of these things kind of feed off of each other.

“If attendance rates are higher and absenteeism drops, they’re in schools more, so they’re probably getting higher academic scores. And obviously, it impacts test scores too. Students are in school. They’re committed to school. They have that social connection with their teacher or a social worker that can help encourage them and encourage their growth at school – and test scores will increase as well.”