Academic Excellence and Innovation

Irrational Persistence

An anonymous gift honors and amplifies the work of City Connects, BC’s holistic approach to K-12 student support.

Mary Walsh Standing in a classroom with children sitting behind her
Mary E. Walsh, PhD, Executive Director of City Connects and the Daniel Kearns Professor of Urban Education and Innovative Leadership at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development

his is a story about two women, strangers, who grew up in similar working-class towns where they saw families struggle to make ends meet. Both were taught to prize education, bucking expectations for women in the 1950s and 60s to pursue professional careers. One earned her doctorate in psychology, joined the Boston College faculty, and became the driving force behind City Connects, a groundbreaking student support program. The other, who prefers to remain anonymous, became an engineer, married a BC alum and, together, they became influential philanthropists focused on helping disadvantaged students.   

Their paths converged when, in 2001, the couple established the Daniel E. Kearns ’51 Chair in Urban Education and Innovative Leadership, which was awarded to the BC professor, Mary Walsh. United by their shared backgrounds and their beliefs about education, the two quickly became friends. 

“Mary and I hit it off from the beginning,” recalls the benefactor. “We look at education challenges in a similar way, and we’ve both seen how poverty affects kids—and also how well they can do when they have the right support.”

Two decades later, the same donor has made a transformational $10 million gift to help secure City Connects’ future—and to honor the woman whose vision and tenacity she credits with advancing K–12 students’ success across the country and abroad.

With the gift, BC’s Center for Optimized Student Support—which houses City Connects—has been renamed the Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children.

The Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children“We’d already been working on renaming the center, to better communicate what makes it so unique,” explains Walsh, who did not know about the gift in advance or that the Center would also bear her name. “I was shocked, just shocked when I learned about the [full] name.”

For the donor, naming the Center for Walsh was in line with her and her husband’s quiet way of giving back.  

“In any of the philanthropy I do, I want the spotlight to be on the people doing the work,” she says. “Mary is a gifted leader who has brought together a wonderful team, and year after year, they put in the work. They have the expertise and the vision, and that is what is important.”

Scalable Innovation

The Center’s flagship program, City Connects, puts research into practice through a school-based support system that connects each and every student to a tailored set of prevention, intervention, and enrichment services provided by the schools and local community agencies. The idea grew out of Walsh’s experiences as a clinical-developmental psychologist working with low-income and homeless families in Worcester. “That’s when I really got exposed to what grinding poverty does to people,” says Walsh, recalling children who did not get enough food, who had no winter clothes, who missed school to care for siblings, or who simply had no one to encourage their unique talents and interests.

Eager to make a difference beyond her individual case load, she joined the faculty in BC’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development and began exploring ways to directly address out-of-school challenges that inhibit student success.  

“One of my mentors had always told me ‘Mary, the best place to live is on the fence between the worlds of thought and action.’ He was always about integrating research with practice, and that was profound learning for me and aligned completely with my instincts.”

She initially partnered with colleagues in the Lynch School and BC’s School of Social Work to launch a “community school,” modeled on a successful New York City venture. Through that and other experiments, they saw that one of the primary obstacles to overcome was a pervasive lack of coordination. 

“We had student teachers in the same schools as student social workers, often working with the same students, but they never connected, there was no communication,” recalls Walsh. “I saw so much in that school about what schools could do—and were trying to do—but they didn’t have the practical processes in place or the data to show effectiveness. And out of that came City Connects.”

Winning Outcomes

Time and again, research shows that City Connects works. Compared to their peers, students in City Connects elementary schools:

were more likely to enroll in, and complete, post- secondary programs.
achieved better report card scores in reading, writing, and math.
demonstrated significantly higher statewide test scores by grade 5.
scored higher on statewide math and English language arts tests in middle school.
were absent and dropped out of school less frequently in high school.

Working with a growing team of experts from education and academia—including former Boston Public Schools principal Patrice DiNatale and retired BC professor George Madaus—Walsh developed a system of interventions grounded in the latest research as well as the lived experience of teachers, principals, parents, and students. In 2001, the program officially launched and it has since expanded to a network of more than 150 public, private, and charter schools throughout Massachusetts and other states and, as of 2020, in Ireland. The program has also been successfully adapted to serve students of all ages in preschools, high schools, and community colleges.

“It was always important that it be scalable,” says Walsh. “It wasn’t enough to just make one school more successful, we wanted a strategy that could make a difference for all schools and all students.”

The data tells us that if we are able to understand who our kids are and what they need, and if we can fill in the gaps as well as support their talents, interests, and hopes, then all kids can be successful. When we lower barriers and give kids the right resources, we know from research that we can alter the course of their development. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, what your background is, or what neighborhood you live in, success is equally and readily available for everybody.”


At the core of City Connects is the site coordinator, a master’s-level school counselor or social worker who collaborates with teachers to examine the strengths and needs of each child, taking into account academic, socio-emotional, health, family, and other concerns. Then they develop an individualized support plan, and, critically, ensure it is implemented and updated throughout the year.

As students’ needs are met—whether for tutoring, dental care, language services, arts enrichment, or just a safe place to go after school—the impact is far-reaching. Key to the program’s success is that rather than adding new demands to an already stressed school system, the site coordinator helps teachers, families, students, and local organizations work together more efficiently.

“As a teacher you are so consumed with what’s going on in the classroom immediately in front of you that you don’t always have time to find different kinds of resources or services that might be beneficial,” says Julie Roberts, who’s taught fifth grade at an Ohio Catholic school for more than 20 years. “Everybody here feels the same way: We cannot imagine our school without City Connects.”

As City Connects grew, the Center took shape as a way to not only provide research and logistical support to the program, but also to share its impact and lessons learned with educators, social service workers, and—perhaps most importantly—policy makers.

Ireland’s Minister of Education Norma Foley (center) visited Winthrop Elementary in Dorchester, with Professor Mary Walsh, Winthrop Elementary’s Director of Innovation & Administrative Support Anthea Lavergne, City Connect’s Winthrop School Site Coordinator Nicole Marques, and Winthrop Elementary Principal Leah Blake McKetty.
In January 2022, Ireland’s Minister of Education Norma Foley (center) visited Winthrop Elementary in Dorchester, to learn more about City Connects, which is now in 10 Irish schools. She is pictured here with (l-r) Professor Mary Walsh, Winthrop Elementary’s Director of Innovation & Administrative Support Anthea Lavergne, City Connect’s Winthrop School Site Coordinator Nicole Marques, and Winthrop Elementary Principal Leah Blake McKetty.

With 18 full-time staff members, the Walsh Center for Thriving Children produces multiple practice briefs, webinars, and continuing education modules to help others seeking to implement similar programs in their schools. Just this year, the Center led a national effort to develop Guidelines for Integrated Student Support. The Center also developed and manages MyConnects, the proprietary online information system that empowers coordinators to provide students with the right services at the right time while collecting the data that fuels the center’s research.

Shared Visions

From the start, BC’s leadership has shown unflagging support for the Center, which Walsh describes as “mission-consistent” with the Jesuit approach to both educational pedagogy and service to the community. Funding from foundations and BC alumni, parents, and friends has also helped fuel the Center’s role as a leader in the integrated student support movement. Walsh points to the Kearns Professorship as a particularly pivotal gift in the Center’s early stages.

“It gave me the most amazing thing, which was time,” Walsh says about the professorship. “Collaborating with schools takes a lot of time, and that gift is what allowed this to happen. It’s a wonderful example of what an endowed chair can accomplish.”

The professorship was named for Dan Kearns, a Boston Public School principal who had grown up in Dorchester with the donor’s late husband. “They played handball together at the YMCA, and where [my husband] went off to college and pursued a career in finance, Dan went and became a teacher,” the donor recalls. “He was on the front lines, and we had such respect for his public service.”

Around the same time, the donors had launched a program in their own community to support the needs of high school students living in poverty. “They did the hands-on work, enlisting and supporting teachers to mentor these students who were so motivated to succeed despite immense challenges,” says Walsh, who served on the foundation’s board. “It was doing essentially the same thing we’re doing with City Connects, and it’s been amazing to see what both programs have accomplished over the years.”

children playing outside

Now, after 21 years as the Kearns Professor, Mary Walsh has retired from the Lynch School faculty to devote her attention full-time to the Center for Thriving Children. Fundraising will still be a major part of her work since, as an endowed fund, the anonymous gift will provide annual dividends equal to roughly 10 percent of the Center’s current budget. With support from this and other donors, Walsh and her team can plan for the future with greater confidence: “It means sustainability, that the work will continue even after I’m gone.”

While the Center and City Connects will certainly continue to expand, Walsh’s true goal is to shift the larger conversation on student support.

“We’re never going to go to every school, the point is really to influence how schools do their business,” says Walsh. “We’re into direct expansion, but we’re also into policy, and we’re into sharing our practices so others can implement them in ways that make sense for their own communities.”

The donor is proud to play her part. “My main hope is simply that Mary and her wonderful team will continue to do their work,” she explains. “There’s evidence of hope for the kids she and I both care about so much, the low-income kids who just need someone to help them reach their potential.”

City Connects and the Center Timeline


Mary Walsh joins BC faculty


City Connects launches in six Boston public schools


Donors establish the Daniel E. Kearns ’51 Chair in Urban Education and Innovative Leadership at the Lynch School

Initial expansion, mostly local


Expands to additional seven Boston public schools


Expands to Boston Catholic schools; launches first non-Boston site in Dayton, Ohio


Model introduced in high school and early childhood settings, most in elementary schools but some free-standing centers


Launches in Springfield, Massachusetts, public schools

Continued expansion across US


Expands to Springfield Catholic schools; launches in New York City public schools; launches community college program in Ohio


Expands to Ohio charter schools


Expands to Brockton, Massachusetts; launches in Minneapolis Catholic schools and Hartford, Connecticut public schools


Launches in Salem, Massachusetts public schools


Launches in Indianapolis, Indiana and Minneapolis, Minnesota public schools


Launches in Hamilton County public schools (Chattanooga, Tennessee); launches in Jamestown, New York public schools

International Expansion


Launches first international partnership in Ireland with 10 Dublin-area schools


Renamed the Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children

Diana Chaban Griffith

Share via
Copy link