Friday, October 31, 2008

Neighborhoods, Social Capital and Schools

Principal Michael Johnson of Reavis Elementary, shown here with some 6th-graders, is working hard to create cohesion among his staff and build bridges between his school and its neighborhood. According to research discussed at the kickoff of this year's School Policy Luncheon series, he's on the right track.

The Consortium on Chicago School Research says that trust within schools is "the heat in the oven" that accelerates school improvement and ultimately academic gains for kids. Further, according to their regular surveys, trust between principals, teachers and parents has been slowly rising systemwide. "These might not be dramatic changes, but they are changes in the right direction," researcher Penny Bender Sebring told a capacity crowd at the Union League Club on Wednesday.

What may be getting less attention as policymakers focus more narrowly on the classroom is the importance of trust beyond school walls, or social capital. Social capital comes in two flavors: bonding, which helps people within the same community relate to each other and solve internal problems; and bridging, which helps people network across communities to get resources and information they couldn't access otherwise.

Consortium researchers classified Chicago's public elementary schools into seven different categories. The "truly disadvantaged" were those in African-American neighborhoods with a median income below $20,000 per year. It won't surprise anyone that very few schools in those neighborhoods had the kinds of internal supports, including trust, that lead to student success. It also won't surprise anyone that even fewer schools in neighborhoods with high incidences of child abuse and neglect had the internal climate to help children succeed. Meanwhile, mediocre schools in high-social-capital neighborhoods can coast a bit internally and their students still make gains.

However, this fact might surprise you: Chicago's "truly disadvantaged" schools are producing better-than-expected academic gains for their students given the low social capital around them. This could mean it's time to look at how to support and connect to the neighborhood outside the school.

That's exactly what Michael Johnson is doing right now at Reavis, with the help of Elev8, a new initiative supported by New York-based Atlantic Philanthropies and a group of Chicago funders. For more about Elev8, see this story from Catalyst Chicago.

As noted researcher Charles Payne put it on Wednesday, "Social capital matters. Social capital is differentially distributed by race. The impact of social capital is greatest for the neediest kids."

Payne also had a couple of cautionary words for Chicago Public Schools leadership. Two hot topics around town are the district's efforts to turn around low-performing schools by replacing principals and entire faculties in one fell swoop and the rapid replication of a select group of charter schools. Though Payne applauded the sense of urgency around school improvement that fuels both these strategies, he cautioned that they do collateral damage to social capital where it is sorely needed.

"We need to respect the desire to get good fast," yet also "beware that doing this may destroy the trust that makes good things good."

For example, he had heard of a turnaround school where "some kids came back boiling mad. Every teacher they knew was gone. It was not their school. How do we do this in a way that minimizes damage to social capital in a place where social capital is already limited?"

Meanwhile, he's encouraged by the strong relationships building at Urban Prep–"that's something special going on"–and worried that a push for them to open new campuses too soon may endanger the trust that has been built there. "Now, doggone! These relationships have been developed with great trust and care over time. You spread those relationships over three campuses? How do you do that? I hope people are staying up at night worrying about that."

In urban school reform, the challenge has always been to "balance urgency with complexity. The least well understood part of complexity has been the power of social capital."

Let's hope Michael Johnson and other practitioners can shed light on this by their example.

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