Closing “relationship gaps”

A new book looks at how schools can use systematic relationship-building to help students succeed, and it highlights the work being done by City Connects.

“School is an institution responsible for providing the foundation of equal opportunity on top of which our meritocracy can stand proudly,” Julia Freeland Fisher writes in the book, “Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students’ Networks.”

“But playing society’s equalizer is no easy task,” Fisher adds. “Our schools are being asked to level exceedingly complex and unequal terrain.”

Fisher is the Director of Education Research at the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that builds on the ideas of Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor.

To provide opportunity for all students, Fisher says, schools have to address the “relationship gaps,” in families’ social networks. When these networks are strong, they can help children thrive. One example is wealthier parents who often have more time to spend with their children and more money to connect their children to other relationships that are formed through music lessons, summer camps, trips, and other forms of enrichment.

Relationship gaps, on the other hand, can strand students in opportunity deserts.

“Highly segregated schools,” for example, “leave poor minority students at both an academic disadvantage (as seen in well-known measures such as advanced coursework) and a social one.”

Students who “report a lack of supportive, caring relationships are more likely to drop out and stay out of school.” Relationship gaps can also impede access to guidance counselors and informal adult mentors who can provide college advice.

“Without ensuring that students have access to both these foundational caring relationships and crucial resources, the best academic approaches in the world may fall short.”

City Connects, Fisher says, stands out because it provides “a web of care and supports – beyond merely academic supports – to ensure that more students can learn and thrive” by “mitigating the effects of poverty on students’ academic achievement and life chances.”

Fisher interviewed City Connects’ Executive Director Mary Walsh who says in the book, that what drives the model is knowing the child and knowing the parent. So if a teacher suggests that a child might attend a program that’s just down the street, the City Connects coordinator can say, “His mom works in the other direction. If we send him there, it’s going to make it tough for her.”

“The ‘Connect’ in City Connects, in other words, does not merely connote understanding particular categories of student challenges and matching them with solutions, as would an algorithm. Rather, the model aims to understand the whole of a student’s life. From there, his school can attend to his needs in a manner that is sensitive to his particular circumstances.”

And City Connects’ coordinators create more relationships by connecting children and parents to a wide range of community resources and organizations from health services to afterschool programs to summer camps.

Fisher also points to City Connects’ cost effectiveness, noting that the model has a 3:1 return on investment to society. For every dollar spent on children and families in education, social services, health and mental health care, City Connects can triple the beneficial impacts.

Schools, Fisher concludes, have “an exciting opportunity” to “invest in instructional models that deepen student-teacher relationships” and to “integrate student support models” such as City Connects that enrich students’ social networks.

“Achievement may be seen as a proxy for individual merit, but our ability to survive and thrive hinges on social connectedness,” Fisher notes. She adds that with the right innovations, schools can “help equality of opportunity… become a reality for more young people.”

And as we’ve seen at City Connects, stronger relationships create an equality of opportunity that helps students thrive both in school – earning higher grades and being less likely to dropout — and in life.

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