City Connects

What if every child had the personalized set of cross-sector resources they need to develop, learn, and thrive in school each day?

Photo of Mary Walsh
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

“As a clinical developmental psychologist heading home for the day, I stood outside a school talking to a third-grade boy who, like me, grew up in Brighton, Massachusetts, as the child of immigrants. As he told me about his struggles in school and his family, the prospects for this bright, beautiful child were too dim and too unacceptable. For a moment, I stood again in his shoes and was palpably reminded that my opportunities are a mere accident of history and fortune. I have watched my immigrant parents hunger for learning after a lifetime of restrictions to their educational prospects and have seen many of my friends and neighbors come up against barriers too steep to surmount. I have seen too many children squelched by a collective failure to address their basic needs for clothing, food, shelter, medical care, and emotional well-being alongside their academic needs. It tapped my growing frustration with the chaotic, haphazard, and ineffective approaches to student support I witnessed again and again in schools. I knew there had to be a better way and I knew I had the knowledge, relationships, and will to test an approach that combines research and practice to transform outcomes for low-income children.” -- Mary Walsh


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Massachusetts

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

Chestnut Hill

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Boston, MA (37 sites), Springfield, MA (12 sites), New York, NY (9 sites), Minneapolis-St.Paul, MN (7 sites), Hartford, CT (6 sites), Springfield, OH (4 sites), Dayton, OH (3 sites), Brockton, MA (1 site).

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

The achievement gap between high- and low-income children has grown by about 40% in a generation. More than 44% of America’s children live in low-income families and dropouts are almost all lower-income students. City Connects cuts achievement gaps and dropout rates with two innovations: (1) creating a personalized set of existing in- and out-of-school resources designed to address the impacts of poverty on every child’s ability to learn and thrive; and (2) transforming chaotic service delivery into a coordinated system. By maximizing enrichment opportunities and addressing health and psychological factors, City Connects closes achievement gaps and dropout rates. Children in City Connects elementary schools by grade 8 closed half of the achievement gap relative to the Massachusetts average in English and two-thirds in Mathematics. By grade 12, their dropout rate was cut by 50%.

When City Connects enters a school, it becomes the conductor of the vast orchestra of school- and community-based resources for children, driving the right set of resources to the right child at the right time. City Connects places a Master's level Site Coordinator, usually a social worker or school counselor, in a school. Each fall, the Coordinator meets with every teacher to review every child. They (1) discuss the child’s strengths and needs across multiple domains of development: academic, social-emotional, health, and family; and (2) assess the complexities interfering with healthy child development and readiness to learn on a continuum ranging from “no risk” to “severe risk.” Based on the profile of the child, and in consultation with the family and school staff, every child receives a personalized support plan detailing the tailored services and opportunities needed to optimize readiness to learn. The Coordinator is responsible for seeing that each plan is implemented and matches the child to existing in-school and community-based services and resources. Using proprietary technology systems to align resources, track service delivery, and ensure fidelity of implementation, the Coordinator secures the personalized set of enrichment and interventions that develops each child’s potential and readiness to learn.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Scaling (the solution has passed the previous stages, and the next step will be growing its impact on a regional or global scale)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

In an elementary school classroom, a student repeatedly complains of hunger to his teacher. The teacher shares this with the City Connects Coordinator, who contacts mom and learns that she is under severe financial stress. She works full time for low wages, and struggles to buy sufficient food. The Coordinator partners with mom, school, and community agencies to weave together a combination of services and opportunities, including: a referral to a food pantry; access to a program that sends food home in the students’ backpack for use over the weekend; and -- after learning of mom’s concerns about maintaining employment during the summer, when she lacks childcare -- assistance with an application for a day camp.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

More than 10 years of rigorous research and evaluation tell an exciting story about the program’s immediate and long-term benefits for students: • City Connects elementary students outperform their peers on measures of academic achievement (e.g., report card scores and standardized tests) and thriving (e.g., behavior, work habits, effort). The effect is especially powerful for English Language Learners. • Middle school students who attended City Connects schools in elementary years outperform peers from comparison schools on the state-wide standardized tests. The effect is seen particularly for students at risk for literacy outcomes. • Students who attended City Connects schools in elementary years are significantly less likely to be chronically absent in middle school and high school and are significantly less likely to drop out of high school.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $1mil - $5mil

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Initially, City Connects revenue was entirely from philanthropic sources. As we have grown, an increasing portion of its revenue is generated from school districts (~50% in 2015-16). Our planning for sustainability challenges us to have a cost-efficient model focused on continuing to diversify our revenue streams and moving increasingly to school/city funding. We see city funding as a domain of opportunity for supporting this type of work.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

City Connects has been identified as one of the most cost-effective approaches to addressing the out-of-school needs of children. In an independent report, Dr. Henry Levin and his team at Columbia University’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education estimated a Return on Investment (ROI) of 3:1 (for every $1 spent, the return to society is $3) for City Connects with net benefits of $9,280 per student. This estimate utilized the most conservative assumptions with the cost of community services factored into the total cost (if the cost of community services is not factored in ROI of 11:1).

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

As the number of children living in poverty grows and as research uncovers the impacts of poverty and trauma on the brain and cognitive development, there is increasing recognition of the impact of out-of-school needs of children on academic performance. As a core function of schools, student support is the set of processes and structures that address student needs. There is body of evidence showing how a 21st century approach to student support, one that addresses the out-of-school challenges of students in high-poverty communities, offers a powerful lever for advancing children’s wellbeing.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Program Design Clarity

City Connects operates in the following cities: Boston, Brockton and Springfield, MA; New York City; Minneapolis-St.Paul, MN; Hartford, CT; Springfield and Dayton, OH. City Connects serves nearly 30,000 students in 87 public, private, and charter schools (2015-16) across these areas. In 2014-2015, there were 667 community-based partners providing 87,333 services to these children.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 3 - 5
  • 6 - 12
  • 12+

Spread Strategies

City Connects’ potential for growth is significant. City Connects has plans for: (A) Strategic Growth: We anticipate 20% growth within existing districts and are having strategic conversations about entering new districts and (B) Smart Growth: City Connects seeks to streamline our model to facilitate expansion and better leverage both internal and external systems for easier, more widespread implementation.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

Creating a personalized set of existing in-and-out of school resources designed to address the impacts of poverty on each child's ability to develop, learn, and thrive. Each student plan can include a range of prevention, enrichment, early intervention, and intensive interventions. The Coordinator secures the personalized set of enrichments and interventions that develops each child’s potential and readiness to learn.

Leadership Story

“Teachers cannot do the work of counselors and social workers,” educators told Mary Walsh when she inquired many years ago about how schools were addressing the out-of-school challenges of students living in poverty. Along with these educators, Walsh recognized that factors such as homelessness, inadequate health care, and community violence may seriously affect academic achievement. Over the past 15 years, Boston College Professor Mary Walsh has led the development of an organized approach to addressing these and other barriers that interfere with students’ ability to succeed in school.

Organization's Twitter Handle


Evaluation results

18 evaluations so far

1. Relevance: Does this project seem to help children (ages 0 to 12 years) develop a strong sense of self, belonging, and purpose?

5 - Yes, this is great! The project lays out a strong, compelling case for how its model nurtures children’s wellbeing. - 83.3%

4 - It seems like a good fit, and the model talks explicitly about children’s wellbeing. - 11.1%

3 - I think so. The project seems related to children’s wellbeing, but the logic is vague. - 5.6%

2 - Not sure. The project doesn’t have much to do with wellbeing, or it doesn’t give enough information. - 0%

1 - Nope, this project definitely doesn’t fit the challenge brief (e.g., It doesn’t help kids younger than 12, isn’t in the U.S., etc.) - 0%

2. Innovation: Does this project tackle children’s wellbeing from a new angle?

5 - I loved this! The project describes a novel model that addresses important cultural or systemic barriers. - 55.6%

4 - This is pretty cool. The project is addressing an important problem in a new or compelling way. - 33.3%

3 - I feel like there’s something there, but I want more details about what makes it distinctive. - 5.6%

2 - It’s a good project, but I’ve seen others like it before. - 5.6%

1 - It was confusing or hard to tell what it made it different. - 0%

3. Social Impact: What is this project’s potential for creating positive social impact?

5 - Lots of potential. This project is achieving impressive results, and it’s growing quickly. It could absolutely inspire changes in the ways we approach caring for kids nationally, across sectors (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 66.7%

4 - Pretty good potential. This project demonstrates significant positive impact so far, and it could scale regionally or nationally one day and fundamentally change how a system operates (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 22.2%

3 - Budding potential. This project is creating local impact, but it would take a few adjustments before it could scale. - 11.1%

2 - Some potential. This project demonstrates some initial positive impact, but it would require major changes before it could scale. - 0%

1 - Limited potential. This project has great intentions, but it looks like it does not include key drivers of a shift towards children’s wellbeing. - 0%

4. Overall, how do you feel about this idea?

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 55.6%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 38.9%

3 - I think the idea is great, but it needs some work before it moves onto the next round. - 0%

2 - I liked it fine but preferred others. - 0%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. Needs significant revisions. - 5.6%

5. Offer some feedback. Where should this participant spend some time revising?

DEFINING THE PROBLEM. Make sure to articulate the root causes or main barriers of the social issue your project addresses. (Founding Story, Problem, Solution). - 0%

CLARITY OF MODEL. Make sure to mention (a.) the beneficiary, b) the main activities, and c) how those activities drive social impact. Keep it streamlined! - 22.2%

MARKETPLACE. Make sure to research other players in this space and articulate how this project is different. I didn’t get a complete sense of how this project compares to others. - 44.4%

IMPACT POTENTIAL. Make sure to use specific numbers to describe what your project has achieved so far! And consider how you might scale the model or its insights, through partnerships, trainings, or franchising. - 22.2%

WRITING STYLE. Try to stay concise and make it vivid. Avoid jargon. - 11.1%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 100%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Gina Wilkins

Mary Walsh I believe in your work and approach but have you thought about how we can "blur" the lines of culturally different groups of children by having them become leaders and changemakers in their communities by helping those less fortunate? Check out our work and let me know if you think there might be a way we could work together for the benefit of these children. The Kind Mouse is a food pantry that shows children how to lead and get involved. They have their own Board of Directors and actively come up with fundraising ideas to help children in their own community. Would love to connect and get your thoughts. Please evaluate our project too! 

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