Three years ago, Boston College psychologist David L. Blustein, PhD, came up with what he thought was a great intervention for academically at-risk teens: a program to match the students with adult mentors.

"It's a great idea," the teachers and staff at Brighton High School in Boston told him, "but it will never work."

They pointed to the ethical dilemmas of bringing a nonrelated adult into a minor's life. They explained that the program went outside the school's boundaries and cautioned that it was too developmentally complex for their ninth-graders.

"I had to have the strength to say, 'OK, you're right,'" remembers Blustein, director of doctoral training and a professor in Boston College's (BC) counseling, developmental and educational psychology department. "If I would have said, 'I'm going to do this anyway,' the project would've been a failure."

Instead, Blustein became one of a cadre of counseling psychologists in BC's Lynch School of Education who are making a difference where their interventions are needed the most--underfunded urban public schools that educate children who may be poor, have inadequate health care, speak English as a second language or live in violent neighborhoods. Now under the guidance of the education school's dean, psychologist Mary Brabeck, PhD, they've been developing relationships with public schools and local community agencies for more than 10 years, resulting in three programs that have earned the full endorsement of the school system:

  • Tools for Tomorrow, a psychoeducational curriculum to help ninth-graders see the connections between school and work.

  • Gardner Extended Services School, an elementary school that provides comprehensive education, health and mental health services to students and their parents before, during and after school.

  • Education Advocacy Program, a program initiated by Boston College counseling psychologist Elizabeth Sparks, PhD, that provides students who have motivational difficulties with a one-on-one or small-group intervention that encourages homework completion and connects students with support services.

One of the keys to making such projects work, says Blustein, is collaboration. In fact, all three interventions out of BC's counseling, developmental and educational psychology department were developed in the same way: Public school staff identified a need and, together with BC faculty and graduate students, designed an intervention.

Motivating students

The Tools for Tomorrow program is just one example of how collaboration boosts student learning. The program was developed to address the spike in student dropouts that occurs in ninth grade--a year students are particularly at risk, since they're transitioning to high school and facing a 10th-grade high-stakes test they must pass to graduate.

An interdisciplinary planning group--made up of Blustein, Sparks, Maureen Kenny, PhD, BC teacher education faculty, counseling psychology graduate students and high school teachers, administrators and guidance counselors--came up with the idea for an intervention that would show ninth-grade students the connection between staying in school and success in their future careers (see Tools for Tomorrow).

The intervention is team-taught by a high school teacher and a BC graduate student or faculty member once a week during a regularly scheduled class at two area high schools. Graduate students and faculty also meet regularly with school staff to review what's working in the curriculum and what needs to be changed.

The program was developed to draw on the different strengths of teachers and psychologists, says Sandra Copman, EdD, who helps manage Boston Schools' school-to-career programs.

"I think it's helped me as a teacher to be able to view students differently," explains Brighton High School health and physical education teacher Christine Bradt, who's been co-teaching Tools for Tomorrow for three years. "The strength that they get from us is figuring out class management techniques that work, whereas we get from them the ability to ask questions and develop a little bit different relationship with students to help them make good decisions."

Community focus

Taking such collaboration one step further is Mary E. Walsh, PhD, who directs BC's multidisciplinary Center for Child, Family and Community Partnerships. She has helped create the Gardner Extended Services School model, a shining example of how to get the community and parents involved in elementary-school students' lives (see Gardner Extended Services School).

"Through grant initiatives and institutional support from Boston College and the YMCA of Greater Boston, we were able to help that school transform itself over a 10-year period from a school that provided teaching and learning to a school that has services and resources for kids and families that go from 7 in the morning to 11 at night," says Walsh, who is also a BC counseling psychology professor.

"The collaboration has been probably one of the best I've ever seen in my professional experience," adds Margaret Hoban, PhD, head of psychological services for Boston's public schools. "The bottom line is that the people who are collaborating are truly concerned about how we can best serve the students of Boston."

The elementary school includes an on-site health clinic, before- and after-school programs for students, summer enrichment activities, and night classes for parents. The partnership also provides students with recreational opportunities through the local YMCA.

The efforts are paying off: In 2000, Gardner was among the top 12 percent of Boston schools in academic improvement. And Boston Public Schools' administrators think the idea is working so well that they've signed off on expanding the program to 10 additional elementary schools--a project called Connect 5, which has garnered more than $1.5 million in funding.

Beyond test scores, the program has made the school a place where parents feel welcome, says doctoral student Elizabeth Warter, who has worked at Gardner for four years. "They walk into the school as if they're part of the school, and not a visitor," Warter explains.

Graduate students and faculty participate on the project's advisory board, supervise volunteer mentors and tutors, collect research data, and regularly work with teachers, administrators, YMCA staff and other community partners. "We work hand-in-glove with the school psychology program in the Boston schools," Walsh says. "We complement what they do."

Hard work

Even though BC students and faculty sing the praises of working hand-in-hand with schools, the realities of an urban public school can make the day-to-day running of an intervention challenging.

Securing funding can be a constant battle, especially since this has been a tight budget year in Boston. BC psychologists donate their time to writing grants to fund teachers' and graduate students' extra efforts. Walsh has pulled monies from the Wallace Reader's Digest Fund, the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers funds, state grants, small foundations and some local businesses to begin and expand the Gardner model.

For Tools for Tomorrow, the curriculum team has had to come up with creative ways to deliver the intervention, since some students' reading and writing difficulties make a traditional reading-based curriculum problematic. That's where the input of teachers and even students has really made a difference, says Blustein. Students don't think twice about telling him when a lesson plan isn't interesting or relevant.

"It's the hardest work I've ever done as a psychologist," says Walsh. "It would be much easier to, A, work with psychologists, and, B, stay in my university office."

Like Walsh, psychologists and educators in many school districts have had to figure out how to surmount some big challenges. Just a few of the lessons learned:

  • Dedication is key. Psychologists ought to stick around for the long-term, not just until the data are collected--but also be upfront about their time constraints, since intervention work must be balanced with university responsibilities.

  • Staying goal-focused. "Sometimes we get so consumed by the work that we lose track" of the intervention's ultimate goal of improving education, explains Karen Stoiber, PhD, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's school psychology program who has 10 years experience in schools.

  • Understanding larger school issues. In the era of high-stakes testing, it's important for interventions to fit with the school's curriculum and state and federal standards for learning.

But BC faculty and students are also quick to talk about the rewards once such things are taken into account.

"The areas that I've been exposed to--grant writing, community research, collecting both quantitative and qualitative data, as well as working collaboratively with other disciplines--is a wonderful training experience that one doesn't often get," says Warter.

"I wouldn't trade the experience for anything," adds Sara Kimmel, a doctoral student with Tools for Tomorrow. "It brings to life a lot of the theoretical pieces that we learn."