Editor's Note: This story is part of The Partnership Project, a series of content written in an effort by The Daily News to follow the formal collaboration of Ball State University and Muncie Community Schools. Read more in this series here.
While some teachers may consider a student who can’t sit still in class a distraction, Rahmed Paige tries to understand the root of that student’s behavior.
In August 2021, Paige conducted classroom reviews with teachers at Grissom Elementary School, including short reports on the students to understand their individual backgrounds and needs. These classroom reviews are part of Paige’s job as a family navigator, a new position at three Muncie Community Schools (MCS) elementary schools introduced to provide holistic student support.
“I think behavioral support is huge,” Paige said. “A lot of our students need behavioral support.The biggest one overall, I would say, is our SEO groups — social and emotional learning — detailing some of that behavior, coping skills and different things.”
Paige said he runs five different social and emotional learning groups at Grissom to help students understand and cope with their emotions. Because the students are in elementary school, Paige said making the activities enjoyable is his priority.
Contact City Connects Midwest
To discuss implementing the City Connects practice in new schools and to see open site coordinator positions, visit the Center for Vibrant Schools web page.
Source: Marian University Center for Vibrant Schools
“They really like games and enjoy the interactive portion, so you [have] to keep it fun for them to keep them engaged — they’re elementary kids,” he said. “We’ve played ‘Mad Dragon,’ and I could find anger management bingo or something. They like little things like that.”
As a family navigator, Paige is responsible for student support plans for about 500 students. At this point in the school year, Paige said he is following up with teachers on how different student support plans are working regarding classroom success.
Though he has only been in his position since August, Paige said he is excited for the future of City Connects at Grissom and other MCS schools. Even when he has changed or adapted student support plans, he said he is prioritizing student wellness, especially in his social and emotional learning groups.
Family navigators, also known as site coordinators, were formally introduced at Boston Public Schools (BPS) in the 1990s. BPS partnered with Boston College to practice what the college had been researching about emerging student support practices that brought principals, teachers and community agencies together.
Now, according to the Boston College website, this practice is known as City Connects, which has been implemented in more than 100 public, charter and private schools in Massachusetts, Ohio, New York, Connecticut, Tennessee, Minnesota and Indiana.
In Indiana, Marian University in Indianapolis is leading the City Connects practice from its Center for Vibrant Schools. Jessica Morales Maust, executive director of K-12 for the Center for Vibrant Schools, said City Connects Midwest has implemented practices in 34 schools across the state, primarily in Indianapolis, Muncie, South Bend and Gary, Indiana.
Ken Britt, senior vice president of strategic growth and innovation at Marian University, piloted City Connects Midwest after working at a private school in Ohio that implemented the practice. The Center for Vibrant Schools hosts the City Connects Midwest Technical Assistance Center, which provides service and support to City Connects schools across Indiana and Ohio, with plans to expand to other states.
Morales Maust said City Connects isn’t something schools can implement in the middle of the school year, as she usually expects about three conversations with school leadership to create an implementation plan. She said Britt knew MCS Director of Public Education and CEO Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, so Britt reached out to her asking if MCS would be interested in trying the City Connects practice.
“Dr. K was the ultimate champion,” Morales Maust said. “She just took it and said, ‘We’re doing this, and here’s why.’ That is just so important. We're so grateful to her for the work that she's done to help get City Connects implemented in the school.”
MCS received $450,000 to fund City Connects over the next three years, said Tony Sandleben, director of communications for the City of Muncie. These funds came from the city’s income tax EDIT funds that Mayor Dan Ridenour controls.
“The City Connects factor gets to the root cause of how students act, behave, succeed [and] struggle,” Morales Maust said. “The way they do this is they implement the practice with the start of putting a City Connects coordinator into a school, and they’re the ones who are truly leading and mobilizing the practice.”
Coordinators receive training on the MyConnects database, which they use to input student information and support plans, before they begin their job. Family navigators must have a master’s level training in social work, mental health or school counseling. This background is required to ensure employees are familiar with community services and can organize and lead their own counseling groups within the school building, said Jillian Lain, director of City Connects Midwest at the Center for Vibrant Schools at Marian University.
“Every student could use something, and at what level is different for everyone, but every student is getting something,” Lain said. “At the end of the year, every student should have some kind of support plan in place, as great or small as it might be — everyone is getting one.”
Morales Maust said City Connects emphasizes efficient communication among student support staff at schools through the MyConnects database managed by the school’s family navigator. Navigators input information about each student’s academic and classroom behaviors, socioeconomic status and home life, as well as additional details where needed. This MyConnects database information is stored on a secure, cloud-based server and can transfer from school to school and classroom to classroom so teachers and navigators don’t have to restart the process of tailoring support services to each student over again.
“We feel that this needs to be the future of student support,” Morales Maust said. “It's not fair to only put this in public or charter or private schools. Every single student, no matter what school you go to, has out-of-school factors impacting their education, so we don't discriminate. We want to put it in every school as possible.”
While Center for Vibrant Schools staff are confident the City Connects practice works, Lain said she can understand why some districts would be scared to try something new, especially if certain teachers have already developed close relationships with families and would find it difficult to hand off responsibilities to another staff member.
“It’s a lot of new for everybody, and we know that change is hard,” Lain said. “It’s changing dynamics in school buildings as well, so all of that takes time. But as folks become more and more comfortable and informed about the practice, I think the schools that have implemented it in a really strong way have immediately seen some of those results.”
Paige said one of his proudest accomplishments as a family navigator was looking at his needs assessments for students’ families in the MyConnects database to determine which families might benefit from extra food donated during an MCS food drive.
“They would have missed out if I wasn’t able to make those extra calls,” he said. “On top of that, I even delivered it to them, so that was really nice to get out to different homes and say, ‘This is available — I thought you might have needed this.’”
Paige grew up in Muncie, so he said he appreciates being able to offer students holistic support that he didn’t see when he was growing up.
“There were guidance counselors, of course, but there's so many — there's 300 to 400 students — so it's hard to keep track of one,” Paige said. “With the database, we have all of this information already collected [and] rolling over into the next year, so we got information that we can build off of … now that data collection is happening, it can be used across schools.”
Lain said City Connects Midwest is growing beyond classrooms as well with community practices.
“There are some groups that are reaching out to us that are working on coalitions, and they're wanting to address learning loss but also create an opportunity to make educated decisions about the types of things that we want to implement at a community level,” Lain said. “So there's also those kinds of inquiries that are starting to come in because they want to create more systemic change serving people and residents.”
While it makes sense for City Connects to expand strategically by school district or state, Morales Maust said, City Connects Midwest staff are willing to take unique opportunities to implement the practice with any interested organization.