Catholic Central program connects with students

As our community has become more diverse in recent years, Catholic Central has expanded its mission and admissions by making a faith-centered education available to a more diverse group of students.

This school year, a third of Central students are African-American, Hispanic, multi-racial and other ethnicities, including multiple immigrant children for whom English is a second language. In some ways, this mirrors Springfield’s Catholic Schools’ founding years, which involved educating the children of Irish and German immigrants. Importantly, a more diverse student body better prepares all of our students to live in our more diverse world and helps us to more fully live out the inclusive mission of our Catholic faith.

Through the generosity of Dayton’s Mathile Family Foundation, which supports similar efforts in Dayton, we are now in the fourth year developing a network of providers and programs designed to make our schools stronger: to help our challenged students succeed and our traditional students get more out of their education — all the while fostering the kind of community cohesion that has always been part of the Catholic Central experience.

The network is being developed through City Connects, a program created at Boston College to foster academic success in a student population with diverse backgrounds and needs. Research has established that City Connects students show higher achievement as measured on standardized tests, repeat grades less frequently, and have lower chronic absence and drop-out rates.

At its simplest level, the program identifies the strengths and needs of each student and connects him or her with the appropriate services and opportunities. Carrying out that mission, however, is complicated because of what researchers concluded: two thirds of the factors influencing student success take place outside the school building. For instance, according to Boston College, “Low-income families may have less time and fewer resources to invest in homework help or extracurricular activities of children” and “chronic financial stress may cause a parent to have lower quality interactions with his or her child.”

To address these and a much wider range of needs, City Connects does what its name says: it connects students with a broad range of agencies and programs in the city of Springfield to provide wrap-around services that give families and students the support they need to succeed in and out of the classroom.

Springfield is well provisioned with such services; from food assistance, afterschool programs, arts enrichments, counseling, mentoring and tutoring to violence prevention and literacy services. Central has more than 50 different partnerships it actively utilizes each school year. Of course, to connect students with services that meet their needs, we have to know what those needs are.

So, at the heart of City Connects day-to-day operations are three coordinators, each with master’s degrees and professional licenses in school counseling or social work. Their salaries constitute the program’s largest expense. Each year, coordinators sit down with an administrator, and teacher from each classroom to conduct-a student-by-student review and a classroom-by-classroom assessment at the beginning of the year. Students are assessed in five areas: academic, social/emotional, health, family and college/career readiness.

One purpose of the review is to identify students with the highest needs. Another is to make sure that other students don’t get lost, identifying students who could benefit from enrichment activities, while tracking both their interests and achievement.

“It’s kind of like the marriage of (school) counseling and social work,” said Kristen Scharf, who was a school counselor before she joined Central’s City Connects staff.

She works in grades 3-6 and shares middle school duties with Andrea Migliozzi, who works with grades 7-12. Their colleague, Josh Richardt, concentrates on gradesPre-K-2. Once the review is complete, coordinators work with families and administrators to provide tailored services to students based on individual needs and strengths.

For example, Central’s Debate and Key clubs recently re-activated to provide that outlet for interested students. Because our coordinators were aware of STEM students’ eagerness to learn, when Dayton Children’s Hospital began offering a genetics-related enrichment program, it was invited to Central. Our City Connects team is also all ears when any community group is interested in offering something to our students.

We approach families to enlist them as partners in helping their children in school and provide parents with a newsletter of upcoming activities so they can encourage their children to take full advantage. And, as one would expect, we have found teachers to be our allies in this initiative.

With all they have to do in meeting state standards and other academic obligations, teachers, though often aware of their students’ other needs, frequently felt frustrated at their inability to help. Even on matters as simple as finding glasses for a student who can’t afford them or directing a student interested in scouting to the right place, they now know they can turn to City Connects.

Also, because the team is so aware of the variety of resources available, once a decision to accept help is made, they can then guide families to the right place quickly so identified needs don’t get lost in the shuffle.

Last year, City Connects made more than 10,500 referrals, 7,500 in the areas of prevention and enrichment, providing three or more services to 99.9 percent of the Catholic Central population. This all resulted in more than 155,000 service hours, including participation in the evidence-based Olweus Bullying Prevention Program and Pax Good Behavior Game.

In instances where finances have made services like professional tutoring unaffordable, coordinators have encouraged our own students to step up to tutor younger students who need help. In short, we have adapted.

Fully funded for the first three years of its work here, City Connects is now in the first year of a three-year stepdown of funding we will have to address if we’re going to be able to continue to meet the growing challenges of the Catholic Central community.

Our vision is that City Connects will remain a fundamental part of our everyday operations; continuing to support students and their families in a way that both fosters achievement and promotes the kind of community cohesion that has always been the hallmark of Catholic Central.

Dr. Karen Juliano is the CEO and high school principal at Catholic Central.

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