HASI Assistant Director Lisa Moellman (pictured) recently trained City Year volunteers who will be working in after-school programs across Boston. “HASI’s work gives us the ability to make after-school time more fun and engaging,” said Stephen O’Connell, one of the 10 City Year corps members assigned to the Agassiz School in Jamaica Plain last year.

Justin Ide/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Minds in the making

7 min read

HASI increases educational opportunities for Boston children

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. That’s the guiding principle of the Harvard Achievement Support Initiative (HASI), which seeks to increase learning opportunities for young people by arming teachers, parents, and community partners with techniques and resources that boost student achievement.

Enabling all students to fulfill their full potential is paramount for any school system, but can be a challenge in a district as big and diverse as Boston’s. HASI endeavors to support learning opportunities for Boston’s young people by providing school grants and professional development programs that strengthen the link between out-of-school time and the classroom, empowering schools and families to engage students on a whole new level.

“By having teachers and parents take on responsibility for the work, you’re getting them invested,” said Tamara Blake, principal of the William E. Russell Elementary School in Dorchester, Mass., which has worked with HASI for the past three years. “If don’t engage them, they’ll never take ownership and the program will only last as long as Harvard is working with us. We need to make sure that these strategies continue, that this work continues, regardless.”

HASI is also an integral part of Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino‘s StepUP initiative, an innovative partnership among Boston-area universities and select Boston Public Schools (BPS) working collaboratively to support student achievement. Through StepUP, HASI seeks to enrich learning by providing schools with research-based professional development, grants, and standards-aligned materials and activities.

HASI’s extensive work in Boston is composed of two key programs: SmartTALK, designed to improve the quality of academic programming in out-of-school time through the use of hands-on learning centers, coaching support and ongoing professional development for staff; and Mind in the Making, a national program that translates the science of how children learn to real-world practice in early care and education.

SmartTALK activities now take place in 26 Boston schools, serving nearly 1,000 schoolchildren each year and providing professional development activities for hundreds of staff and school volunteers. Last year, HASI staff provided more than 330 hours of on-site SmartTALK coaching support for teachers, staff, and administrators at nine StepUP schools.

“SmartTALK lent itself nicely to what we try to do here,” Blake said of her school. “It helped our students engage in more academic talk with their teachers; they could express themselves better.”

In the past three years, HASI has also formed a mutually beneficial relationship with Boston’s City Year Program, a corps of young people committed to a year of full-time service.  Since 2007, HASI has provided learning materials, professional development, and regular coaching to the City Year members running the afterschool program at the Agassiz School. HASI officials have also conducted professional development sessions for Boston’s entire City Year cohort.

“We’ve gotten all this coaching and materials,” O’Connell said. “We wouldn’t be as good without it.”

Programs in which after-school staff members have integrated SmartTALK materials and practices report that students are developing better organization and study skills; have become more effective problem solvers; are better able to talk about and show others what they know; and can work more effectively in groups.

“HASI’s work gives us the ability to make after-school time more fun and engaging,” said Stephen O’Connell, one of the 10 City Year corps members assigned to the Agassiz School in Jamaica Plain last year.

A key element of HASI’s engagement in schools is a series of family nights held throughout the school year designed to engage parents in their children’s education. Parental involvement in learning is a critical factor in promoting student success, according to a recent report by the Harvard Family Research Project, which found that children whose parents help them with homework and have high academic expectations do better in school. More than 2,700 parents and children have attended SmartTALK Family Events, participating in learning activities and taking home materials designed to advance learning at home.

For parents like Graciela Sosa of Roslindale, the combined efforts mean that her children’s learning doesn’t stop when the school day ends. All three of her children attend the after-school program at the Agassiz School, where HASI-trained City Year volunteers help them with homework and engage them in educational games that draw upon what they’re learning in school. Thanks to the SmartTALK family nights, Sosa says she’s better equipped to help them at home.

“My kids want me to be a part of what they do in school, and this helps me keep in touch with what they’re doing,” she said.

HASI continues its mission to improve student achievement in Boston through Mind in the Making (MITM). Developed by the nationally known Families and Work Institute (FWI), MITM offers a first-of-its-kind approach to translating what we know about how young children really learn to practical application in program practice. The work of nationally known experts from Harvard University is featured in video-based learning modules.

Last year, HASI sponsored the launch of a new MITM group at the Haynes Early Education School and completed a two-year project at Ellison/Parks Early Education School in Mattapan.

Achievement gaps can start as early as pre-kindergarten, when more affluent students with well-educated parents and access to learning materials arrive at school with better developed reading skills than their peers. To overcome this and build strong reading skills in all students, early childhood education teachers like the ones at Ellison/Parks need to understand child development, said Principal Nora Toney.

Over the course of two years, all 50 teachers and paraprofessionals at Ellison/Parks participated in regular MITM training sessions.

“The teachers looked forward to it,” Toney said. “It really helped them look more closely at the social and emotional development of children.”

Serving nearly 200 students in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood, students at Ellison/Parks personify many of the challenges that educators face when trying to ensure academic success for all students. Children at Ellison/Parks come to school speaking more than 10 different languages, and almost half are considered limited-English proficient. Nearly 80 percent of students at the school receive free or reduced lunch, a common poverty indicator.

In MITM, teachers learned how to understand and practically apply two key research findings: 1) learning, especially in the early years of life, takes place in the context of nurturing relationships with caring, trusting adults; and 2) social, emotional, and cognitive learning are inextricably linked.

“They learned that we cannot think of students as anything other than a child who needs extra support,” Toney said.

As the MITM course went on, Toney noticed changes in her school. Teachers became invested in their students’ success in a new way. They interacted differently with their pupils. Standards rose.

“It helped make things clearer in terms of why we do what we do,” she said. “I didn’t have to do as much background explaining…. And now that they understood exactly what a child of a certain age is capable of, their expectations rose. They pushed students to the next level.”

At their last session at Ellison/Parks, HASI facilitators asked participants to share some of their thoughts on what they’d take away from the two-year MITM engagement. One teacher’s response: “I realized that it is necessary to be a reflective and caring teacher, and to be mindful of the impressions I make on children’s lives each day because they will remember it.”