Julia Freeland Fisher is director of education at the Clayton Christensen Institute and author of “Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations that Expand Students' Networks.” Joan Wasser Gish is director of systemic impact at the Boston College Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children.
The Biden Administration is doubling down on student support investments. The pending FY23 budget has $468 million for Community Schools.
The Administration’s new National Partnership for Student Success is calling for districts to use billions in federal stimulus funds to tap 250,000 “caring adults” to support students as tutors, mentors, student success coaches, wraparound service coordinators, and post-secondary transition coaches. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is enhancing school counselor and mental health staff training and recruitment. States, too, are increasing the numbers of school social workers and mental health professionals.
These investments put immense faith in the familiar but ill-defined notion of “student support” as a critical activity of education systems, especially those serving students from low-income households.
However, history and research suggest well-intentioned but disconnected “support” investments can fall short. More resources and personnel alone may be insufficient to achieve improved learning and economic outcomes for children growing up in poverty.
But those results are possible. To put public dollars to work, schools and communities should draw on growing research on integrated student support and social capital, which point to the immense potential of systematically creating individualized plans and coordinating well-resourced networks for students furthest from opportunity.
Integrating supports, building social capital
There is a small but growing literature behind the science of “integrated student support.” What sets it apart from the many traditional student support approaches out there? Integrated student support models aren’t simply about connecting students to more services or interventions.
Instead, they are staffed and designed to ensure a personalized set of school- and community-based resources attuned to students’ individual strengths and needs. Some such programs that integrate supports, like Boston College’s City Connects program, have strong peer-reviewed evidence demonstrating better test scores, better attendance, reduced drop out rates, and greater likelihood of enrolling in and completing postsecondary education.
Researchers are continuing to delve into what’s causing those outcomes, but some of the findings suggest what students gain is not just access to resources, but also a powerful network of relationships — among coordinators, students, families, teachers and community members. That network itself is the conduit through which life-changing relationships, resources and opportunities travel.
The findings echo other emerging research on the social side of opportunity. For example, Opportunity Insights recently identified the outsized role well-resourced social networks play in driving students’ chances of economic mobility.
In other words, knowing people who can offer direct emotional, academic and financial support, and who can provide additional connections, is key to helping students get by in school. It also appears critical to helping them get ahead in the long run, in college and careers.
But these networks don’t appear out of thin air, particularly for students who may experience dislocation, be new immigrants, be learning English, or come from families focused on economic survival. Building networks equipped to respond to students’ needs and interests requires intentionality, processes and trust building — the very activities that updated systems and infrastructure dedicated to integrated student support and opportunity could accomplish.
Why current investments in neighborhoods and schools fall short
Policymakers hoping to improve outcomes for low-income children seem to intuit the importance of resources and relationships, but rarely fund them in tight coordination. That requires a more precise vision and strategy to build networks than dominant approaches to date.
In recent decades, for example, neighborhood- and school-based initiatives like Promise Neighborhoods and Community Schools have seen significant public investment. These approaches put an impressive array of resources and relationships within reach for young people and their families, like pediatricians and dentists, mental health services, social services and educators.
But who gets these resources to students? These investments still leave too much to chance. Too often, the “activation work” depends on individual luck: Did you see a flier about an after-school opportunity? Were you lucky enough to get Dr. Johnson as your coach? Can your friend’s parent help you fill out college applications?
Resources and relationships alike can only be impactful for children if the right ones get to the right child at the right time. Getting the right “package” to each child takes an unseen operational and staffing infrastructure: a system to make the tangle of support services, programs and opportunities work for every child.
Public dollars could go further, faster, if they were coupled with modest investments in systems of integrated support designed to intentionally deliver resources and relationships to individual students — not just their schools and neighborhoods writ large.
The missing connective tissue
Reaching each individual student requires systems that intentionally build the relationships that allow for each student to be known, and for connections to be made to the resources and people who can make a difference for that student. Both practitioners and researchers have been learning 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, the Harvard University Education Redesign Lab, the Learning Policy Institute, the University of Pennsylvania Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education, and the University of California Los Angeles Center for Mental Health in Schools joined with practitioners from 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 first ever National Guidelines for Integrated Student Support.
The guidelines describe how schools’ traditional student support function can be updated to deliver on a comprehensive plan of resources and relationships for each and every student, and use data to improve implementation and evaluate outcomes.
Counterintuitively, a systematic, child-by-child approach is more cost-efficient. A 2020 Prevention Science paper analyzing the City Connects model of integrated student support, as compared to a typical elementary school without City Connects, found the approach reduced inefficient uses of personnel, prevented and mitigated student crises, and accrued on average over $5,400 per student worth of outside services, improving student outcomes.
Schools can more efficiently and effectively leverage the panoply of resources and relationships available in schools and communities by building the integrated student support infrastructure to intentionally 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 impactful. It can lend precision and efficacy to the all too amorphous notion of “student support.”
And it can ultimately allow more students to be supported by the well-resourced networks that open doors to learning and opportunity.