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Julia Freeland Fisher is Director of Education at Clayton Christensen Institute and author of Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations that Expand Students’ Networks. Joan Wasser Gish is Director of Systemic Action at the Boston College Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children.
The Biden administration is doubling its investment in student support. The upcoming FY23 budget is $468 million for community schools.
The administration is new National partnership for academic success Calls on districts to use billions in federal stimulus funds to reach 250,000 “caring adults” who support students as tutors, mentors, student success coaches, all-round service coordinators, and post-secondary transition coaches. That Bipartisan Safer Communities Act improves the training and recruitment of school counselors and mental health staff. States are too increasingly the number of school social workers and mental health professionals.
These investments place great reliance on the familiar but ill-defined notion of “student advancement” as a critical activity of education systems, particularly those serving students from low-income households.
However, history and research suggest that well-intentioned but unrelated “support” investments can fall short. More resources and human resources alone may not be enough to achieve better learning and economic outcomes for children growing up in poverty.
But these results are possible. To use public funds, schools and communities should tap into the growing research on integrated student support and social capital, which points to the immense potential of systematically creating individualized plans and coordinating well-resourced networks for students furthest from opportunity.
Integrate sponsors, build social capital
There is a small but growing literature behind the science of “integrated student support”. What sets it apart from the many traditional approaches to student support out there? Integrated student support models are not just about connecting students to other services or interventions.
Instead, they are staffed and designed to ensure a personalized offering of school and community-based resources, tailored to students’ individual strengths and needs. Some of these programs that integrate supports, such as Boston College’s City Connects program, have strong peer-reviewed evidence better test results, better participation, reduced dropout ratesand greater likelihood of Enrollment and completion of secondary school.
Researchers continue to investigate what causes these findings, but some of the findings suggest that not only do students gain access to resources, but they also gain a strong network of relationships — between coordinators, students, families, teachers and community members. This network itself is the channel through which life-changing relationships, resources, and opportunities travel.
The findings mirror other emerging research on the social side of opportunity. For example recently Opportunity Insights identified the oversized role of well-equipped social networks when it comes to increasing students’ chances of economic mobility.
In other words, knowing people who can provide direct emotional, academic, and financial support and provide additional connections is key to helping students do well in school. It also seems crucial to help them get ahead in school and at work in the long run.
But these networks don’t appear out of the blue, especially for students who may be experiencing displacement, are recent immigrants, are learning English, or come from families focused on economic survival. Building networks equipped to respond to student needs and interests requires purpose, process, and trust-building—the very activities that updated systems and infrastructure for integrated student support and opportunity could achieve.
Why current investments in neighborhoods and schools are falling short
Policymakers hoping to improve outcomes for low-income children seem to understand the importance of resources and connections, but rarely fund them in close concert. This requires a more precise vision and strategy for building networks than previously prevailing approaches.
In recent decades, for example, neighborhood and school initiatives such as promise neighborhoods and community schools have seen significant public investment. These approaches put an impressive range of resources and relationships within reach for young people and their families, such as paediatricians, dentists, mental health services, social services and educators.
But who brings these resources to the students? These investments still leave too much to chance. Far too often the “activation work” depends on individual luck: Have you seen a flyer about an extracurricular offer? Were you lucky, Dr. Johnson as your coach? Can your friend’s parents help you fill out college applications?
Resources and relationships can only be effective for children when the right resources go to the right child at the right time. Getting the right ‘package’ for each child requires an invisible operational and human infrastructure: a system for managing the maze of support services, programs and opportunities for each child.
Public money could go further, faster, if coupled with modest investments in integrated support systems aimed at providing resources and relationships Individually Students – it’s not just their schools and neighborhoods that are capitalized.
The missing connective tissue
Reaching each and every student requires systems that intentionally build the relationships that allow each student to be known and connect with the resources and people who can make a difference for that student. Both practitioners and researchers have learned how to do this effectively.
Recently, under the auspices of the Boston College Center for Thriving Children (where Wasser Gish works), researchers from American Institutes for Research, Child Trends, Harvard University Education Redesign Lab, Learning Policy Institute, University of Pennsylvania Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education and University of California Los Angeles Center for Mental Health in Schools all aligned with practitioners together Building Assets Reducing Risks Center, City Connects, Communities In Schools, New York City Community Schools and the National Center for Community Schools to develop the very first National guidelines for integrated student support.
The guidelines describe how schools’ traditional student support function can be updated to provide a comprehensive resource and relationship plan for each individual student and use data to improve implementation and evaluation of outcomes.
Contrary to intuition, a systematic, child-by-child approach is more cost-effective. A 2020 prevention science Paper analyzing the City Connects model of integrated student support compared to a typical elementary school without City Connects found that the approach reduced inefficient use of staff, prevented and mitigated student crises, and averaged more than $5,400 per student to outsiders services, improving student outcomes.
Schools can more efficiently and effectively utilize the range of resources and relationships available in schools and communities by building the integrated student support infrastructure to target and activate the right ones for each student.
This small addition can make burgeoning investments in student support and place-based programs like community schools and Promise Neighborhoods more effective. It can give precision and effectiveness to the all too amorphous term “student support”.
And it can ultimately lead to more students being supported by the well-resourced networks that open doors to learning and opportunity.