It Takes a City
After 120 years, Our Lady of the Rosary School decided to try something different. The school, established when the first Catholic Church was founded in Old North Dayton in 1888, had provided a strong education—and a solid grounding in the principles of faith and community—for thousands of students over the course of a dozen decades.
By the mid 2000s, though, it became clear that the school’s traditional methods weren’t enough to overcome the significant challenges Rosary students faced. In addition to navigating the nuances of various languages and cultures, staff members confronted a more severe challenge that afflicts nearly all Rosary families: poverty.
“Over 75 percent of our students live below the poverty level,” said Principal Jacki Loffer. “Our parents are in that cycle of poverty, and some have been for generations.” Given the struggles of daily life, she said, “making education a priority is a challenge with some of our families.”
Rosary teachers and administrators are dedicated and passionate, but far too often, they found that their efforts in the classroom simply weren’t enough. Today’s challenges demanded different solutions, so it was time to find a new approach.
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
In 2008, Rosary leadership implemented an innovative educational model called City Connects, developed by faculty at Boston College. Rosary was the first school outside of Boston to adopt the model, and the purpose and promise of City Connects were an ideal fit.
“The model asks us to find ways to remove the non-academic barriers that students—especially students living in poverty—have to deal with,” Loffer said.
In some cases, this means ensuring that students have adequate clothing, nutritious food, medical care and mental health services. For some students, simply having a safe, welcoming place to go outside of school hours can make a difference.
Rosary was able to create many solutions such as establishing before- and after-school programs, with collaboration with partners from the community. Tutors, counselors, mentors, and service providers are often invited into the school to work with students. Rosary can also help connect students and families with needed resources outside of school.
A TEAM EFFORT
A lot has changed in the classroom as well, where a community approach is also now the focus. On a regular basis, teachers and administrators meet as a group to discuss the needs and progress of each child and how they can help them succeed. In Loffer’s view, this is the key to the program’s success.
“The core of City Connects is really coming together as a team and talking about each individual child,” she said. This ensures “we know that child, and we know what that child needs.”
The group meetings result in an individualized plan for every student to help them improve and achieve, including “enrichment goals, behavior goals, academic goals, or just helping them be better socially and emotionally. All those things impact their success in learning,” Loffer said. Another important benefit of working together to support each student is the creation of a strong, close-knit community.
“I know every student’s name,” Loffer said. “I can walk up to their parents and talk to them about what their child is doing.”
When every teacher and staff member is invested in every student, it’s much more difficult to slip through the cracks.
In addition to addressing their many challenges, City Connects also allows teachers to reinforce students’ strengths and nurture their interests. If a student is excellent in math but struggles with reading, for instance, arranging math enrichment—or giving them an opportunity to tutor other students—can be just as important as providing additional help with reading.
“It’s a lot about looking at every student’s individual strengths and weaknesses,” Loffer said. “We try to connect them with opportunities to improve those weaknesses, but also to highlight those strengths.”
“Given the struggles of daily life on this poverty level, making education a priority is a challenge for some of our families.”
A LIFETIME OF SUCCESS
After seven years with the City Connects model in place, Loffer said the results have been remarkable.
“By addressing those non-academic barriers, we’ve seen our students succeed academically,” she said.
Following eighth grade, Rosary students go on to a number of area high schools. For recent graduates leaving Rosary after years in the City Connects program, the transition to high school has been markedly smoother, and more students are experiencing greater success. For those still with the school, Loffer says high school placement scores have risen significantly, and reading proficiency scores have climbed 11 percentage points in the past three years.
“We’re very proud,” Loffer said, but “we have a long way to go. Our students have a long way to go.”
However, she points out, the Rosary mission— and her hopes for her students—go far beyond academics.
“A lot of the successes we see,” she said, “are in how our students mature and start to believe in themselves, and take responsibility for their actions and their education.”
The skills, experiences, and values students forge at Rosary are intended to serve them well throughout their life—and the sense of connection and community created through the school is just as enduring. Loffer expresses this idea simply and emphatically to her students and their parents: “You’re family,” she says, “and once you’re a part of Rosary, you’re always a part of Rosary.”