Scaling — and investing — in relationships that boost students’ success

The old recipe for school success was to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic.

But Julia Freeland Fisher has added a fourth ingredient: relationships.

To close opportunity gaps, Fisher, the Director of Education Research at the Clayton Christensen Institute, says schools have to close relationship gaps in families’ social networks. That’s the premise of her book, “Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations that Expand Students’ Networks.”

One barrier to accomplishing this work: people think it can’t be done.

In a recent article posted on 74 Million’s website, Fisher points to New York Times Columnist David Brooks, who wrote an op-ed earlier this year praising the work of “weavers,” people who “want to live in right relation with others and to serve the community good.”

“Weavers are building relationships one by one, which takes time,” Brooks writes, adding, however, that weavers face a daunting obstacle, “Relationships do not scale.”

Not true, Fisher says, pointing to City Connects and other programs.

Fisher acknowledges that it’s easy to think relationships can’t be scaled.

“It’s an appealing and understandable message, because we all intuitively know that it takes time to build trust,” Fisher tells us in an interview. “And that’s really been at the heart of a lot of what Brooks has been writing about, the power of enduring, trusting relationships.”

In addition, Fisher writes in her article:

“Relationships demand emotional intimacy, and building that sort of trust takes time.”

These costs — given the limits of public budgets – can raise concerns among school district leaders and policymakers.

“…what Brooks might actually be saying (without saying it) is that relationships are hard to scale cheaply,” she writes, however “one simple solution would be increasing public investment in relationships and the infrastructure required to nurture social capital development.”

One example of such an infrastructure, Fisher points out, is City Connects.

“City Connects has shown the power of investing deliberately in ensuring that each and every student is surrounded by a web of care and in making that web foolproof,” Fisher says of our approach to providing integrated student support.

“The City Connects model isn’t just putting more services within reach, which is the traditional approach with wraparound services. And it’s not even just putting more human relationships in reach. It’s actually, by design, strengthening the student/teacher relationship, because the coordinator is actually surfacing things in students’ lives that the teacher might not be aware of otherwise.”

Not only is this approach to scaling relationships working, it’s growing. As Fisher explains in her article:

“…Massachusetts and Indiana are putting big dollars into wraparound student support models that shore up a web of care around students. Some of this has been sparked by the impressive academic results and cost benefit of the Boston College City Connects model, which places coordinators in schools to generate customized support around each student.”

The take home message for policymakers, Fisher says, is that it’s crucial to invest in effective models of relationship building that help students succeed and that produce a return on invested dollars.

“Rather than making politicians gun-shy by talking about hard-to-scale models, we should encourage them to invest in approaches that generate this significant return on relationship investment,” she writes. “[S]tates both blue and red are starting to put dollars into integrated student support structures.”

In her article, Fisher concludes:

“If relationships are instead treated as outcomes, we’ll start investing in institutional designs and intervention models through which relationships are deliberately nurtured and outlast one-time interventions.”

“We get better at what we measure,” Fisher tells us, including the scaling of relationships that promote students’ success.

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