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Supporting the Whole Child – Through a General Contractor

A TC study validates a unique approach to helping schools tap community resources


If anyone dispels the stereotype of the cold-blooded economist, it’s Henry Levin, TC’s William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics & Education. Earlier in his career, Levin spent years founding and building an effort called the Accelerated Schools Project, which helps at-risk children by creating school communities offering all the challenging activities traditionally reserved for gifted and talented students.  

But as an economist, Levin cares about maximizing return on investment. He has developed an approach called the ingredients method that calculates how much money any intervention saves society by generating more taxable income, reducing the burden on the health care and public assistance and criminal justice systems, and creating more engaged citizens. Often his studies have supported big spending, showing that programs with high up-front price tags turn out to be bargains in the longer term. In 2005, for example, a team led by Levin projected that the United States could save $45 billion per year if it made the necessary investments to cut the high school dropout rate in half. He emphasizes that the effort to increase high school graduation – and improve success in life more generally – is a quest for fairness and equity, not just cost savings.  Yet the imperative of a better future doesn’t mean the skies are the limit.

“We’re living in a time when the government is cutting back on school spending, so you want to use resources as effectively as you can,” he says. “If you’re choosing between a few different math interventions, for example, and one is a bit less effective but a lot less expensive, you can achieve better results for your limited resources and free up money for programs in the arts or other areas.

Consider – as Levin and his colleagues have– City Connects, a program run by Boston College that supports students and schools in Boston and Springfield, Massachusetts, by evaluating the needs of all students in a school and connecting them to services that are largely provided by community partner organizations.

In each school City Connects partners with, a full-time coordinator who works with every teacher to review the strengths and needs of every student. Much like a general contractor on a construction project, the coordinator then creates a tailored support plan that draws on preventive and enrichment services that already exist at the school or in the surrounding community. The coordinator functions as the single point of contact for all of these service providers.  

“The program tracks four dimensions – academics, family, health and social/emotional wellbeing,” Levin says. “Prior to joining with City Connects, each of these schools had as many as 70 different providers working with students, but as in most inner-city schools, it was scattershot, there was no coordination of services or consistent evaluation except when kids acted out.  The coordinator ensures not only cost efficiency, but real attention to education and social issues.”

Previous studies have demonstrated that students who attend elementary schools affiliated with City Connects outperform their peers well into high school, with better test scores, higher grades, more consistent attendance, less retention in grade and lower dropout rates. This past July, Levin and five colleagues at TC’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education – Clive Belfield, A. Brooks Bowden, Robert Shand, Anyi Wang and Melissa Morales – published a report showing that the program is remarkably cost effective, too. The report, funded by the GHR Foundation, found that the total cost of six years of participation in City Connects from kindergarten through fifth grade (the “dosage” that other studies had used to measure the program’s effects) is $4,570 per student, which includes the portion of the costs of the community partner services estimated to be above and beyond what schools normally spend. Levin and his team estimated the benefits of City Connects to be $9,280 per student in terms of future earnings and taxes paid, lower costs of criminal justice, health care, and public assistance. Taken to a larger scale, providing the program to a cohort of 100 students over six years would cost society $457,000 but yield $1,385,000 in social benefits, for a net benefit of $928,000. Schools pay only about 10 percent of the total costs of the City Connects program through staff time, facilities and some materials.

But best of all is the quality of the services delivered. “It is conventional for schools to identify and seek specific services for children with obvious or dire needs, but schools rarely screen all children for the full range of academic, health, emotional, and family strengths and needs addressed by City Connects,” the authors write. “In contrast, the City Connects program does this systematically, engaging in greater efficiency of process and with less likelihood of overlooking a student need. And, because the program serves multiple schools across the city, City Connects has con­tinuous contacts with pertinent service providers in the community.”

Published Friday, Oct. 30, 2015

Henry Levin
Henry Levin, Professor of Economics & Education

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