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Answer Sheet: Kids Need More Than Academics at School to Succeed. Doing It Right is the Trick.

The education world has long been filled with debate about how to improve troubled schools and help kids succeed academically and otherwise.

Better teachers? Better school resources? Better school buildings (ones that aren’t, for example, crumbling or homes to rodents)? Desegregated schools and neighborhoods? Feeding hungry kids? Providing medical care for kids and their families? Stabilizing communities where kids live and providing parents with adult education, jobs and other supports they need to keep their families functioning?

The obvious answer is all of them and more, though there is no surefire formula that can work everywhere. The New York Times, for example, recently published an article about how New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio may end a program that has cost $773 million to help poor kids in schools that some officials knew were not likely to improve, and it mentions a number of other efforts to do the same thing that were not successful.

Joan Wasser Gish is director of strategic initiatives at the Boston College Lynch School of Education’s Center for Optimized Student Support and is an author of a paper titled “Improving Student Achievement by Meeting Children’s Comprehensive Needs” and the report “Tipping the Scales: How Integrating School and Community Resources Can Improve Student Outcomes and the Commonwealth’s Future.” She also serves on the Massachusetts Board of Early Education and Care.

By Joan Wasser Gish

Nature or nurture … which is more influential? A recent study on genetics and education illuminates this age-old question and adds to our understanding of how schools can release potential of students no matter what the circumstances of their birth.

The study by Nicholas W. Papageorge and Kevin Thom published by the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at the correlation between genetic endowments and socioeconomic status on educational success.

As The Washington Post reported, it showed that while the genetic distribution of markers associated with educational attainment was evenly distributed across the population, “the least gifted children of high-income parents graduate from college at higher rates than the most gifted children of low-income parents.” In short, our best and brightest born into contexts with limited resources are rarely able to cultivate and contribute their natural-born potential.

[It’s better to be born rich than gifted]

Is anyone surprised? I could have told you this when I graduated from my hometown high school and was one of the few to leave for college. Now, there’s scientific proof.

We’ve understood the dimensions of this challenge to our meritocracy for a while. Since the 1966 report titled Equality of Educational Opportunity, known as the Coleman Report, we’ve noted the tight correlation between Zip code and educational attainment.

And more recent developmental science helps us to understand why. Students who are exposed to poverty and adversities such as trauma, experience “toxic stress.” The consequences of toxic stress include impairments in working memory, organizing information, regulating behavior, and forming positive relationships. It can also slow recovery and resilience against physical health problems and mental illness.

Students’ families often don’t know where to turn for help, and if they do, bureaucratic hurdles can be difficult to navigate. Existing health and social services meant to help children may never reach them. Impacts on a child’s development and readiness to learn can be profound.

Many schools have formal and homegrown efforts responding to the impacts of poverty and other adversities on learning. The Universal School Breakfast Program feeds over 14 million students in schools across the country. The Jennings School District in Missouri opened a food pantry, homeless shelter and health clinic for its students. Programs such as Communities in Schools, Community Schools, City Connects, and BARR Center are addressing students’ comprehensive needs by connecting them to community resources.

This real-world laboratory is proving that when schools systematically broker access to “nonacademic” resources, relationships, and opportunities, then all students — not only the wealthy — are better able to express their potential, academically and beyond.

A new book, “Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks, by Julia Freeland Fisher of the Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, explores this frontier. “[Schools] that are beginning to integrate social supports and deepen students’ networks are producing breakthrough results that have long eluded schools, especially those serving low-income and minority students."

A chapter in her book is dedicated to City Connects, an intervention program that proves her point, and is housed in Boston College’s Lynch School of Education, where I work.

Within each school partnered with City Connects, a trained coordinator engages in a practice that results in connecting each student to a network of school- and community-based supports and opportunities that is customized to fit his or her unique strengths and needs.

For one student, that means a winter coat, a vision check, literacy support, and an after-school soccer program. For another, whose family is homeless, that means connecting the family to food, clothing and job training, and helping Sophia to develop closer relationships with school staff and peers through a social-emotional skills group.

City Connects students significantly outperform peers on statewide tests for English Language Arts and mathematics. Throughout their years in school, students who experienced City Connects demonstrate lower rates of grade retention, chronic absenteeism, and high school dropout. Low-income students, including immigrant students and English language learners, are narrowing achievement gaps, and students, including black and Latino boys, are more likely to finish high school.

As researchers and educators better understand how to deliver integrated student support effectively, policymakers are stepping in to spread what works. Several states like Washington and Nevada have passed, or are considering, legislation to enable evidence-based approaches to integrated student support. Massachusetts and Indiana are providing assistance to schools and districts wanting to learn more about effective practices.

One day, getting connected to academic and nonacademic resources by schools may be enough to cultivate the potential of every student in every community. One day, we might ask whether it’s better to be born smart, rich or connected — and find a better answer.

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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Joan Wasser Gish

Joan Wasser Gish is Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Boston College Lynch School of Education’s Center for Optimized Student Support and is an author of a...