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Etzwiler & Gandal: Helping students build social capital – and a path to the future


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When it comes to academic and career success, it’s hard to overstate the importance of relationships.

No one succeeds alone, and doors of opportunity are not opened by academic achievement alone. Social capital – the benefits and opportunities that come from networks and personal relationships – is extremely important for success in higher education and in careers. But as with more traditional forms of capital, many are unable to access and leverage social capital.

Systemic barriers in the country’s education and employment systems contribute to these inequalities and are especially pronounced for people of color and those without a college degree. Considering that more than three-quarters of jobs are filled through networking, the importance of helping students from all backgrounds develop strong connections and making sure they know how to use them is clear. Addressing inequities in economic opportunity requires addressing inequities in the network – and this work must begin long before a student begins to consider entering the workforce.

Education Strategy Group and the Siemens Foundation are embarking on a new partnership to build on existing research on the importance of developing social capital for students. This new initiative will support teams in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Pinellas County, Florida; San Antonio, TX; San Diego; and Tacoma, Washington, as they strive to build relationships and network development at the heart of the educational pathways they provide to students – their future workforce.

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Each of these communities has made progress in recent years in its commitment to helping students – especially those who have been historically marginalized – make a smooth transition from high school to post-secondary education so that they are ready for well-paying careers. San Antonio, for example, has seen a surge in the number of graduates of color enrolling in four-year colleges over the past five years, largely due to ambitious college enrollment goals in the United States. district-wide and the focus on increasing the participation of these students in advanced courses such as AP classes. Similarly, Tacoma has developed a strategy guided by its ambitious goal that by 2030, 70% of high school graduates will graduate, obtain a technical certificate, or enter a well-paying job within six years. Pinellas County has developed a comprehensive plan to close the academic achievement gaps between Black students and their peers, including a focus on advanced course participation and achievement.

These districts are also leaders in developing new options for their students so they get a head start on college and career success. Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga has introduced innovative alternative school choice options like the Gestamp Workplace Learning Program, which allows high school students to learn on the job for an entire day at that time. The San Diego Unified School District works with local institutions of higher learning to offer college-level courses to students and develop in-depth school partnerships like Avenues for Success, which guarantees admission to San Diego State University. Diego to students who meet certain criteria.

To take their work to the next level, each of these communities will make social capital a central part of their student preparation strategies, with a particular focus on STEM fields. K-12 districts will take the lead, supported by local colleges and universities, businesses, and other community partners in a collective effort to expand, diversify, and engage networks of underrepresented students to better position them for a high-paying, entry-level STEM job.

While the specifics of each location differ and evolve over time, some of the key strategies communities will explore to help students build strong networks include:

  • Teach networking skills in career paths. Networking is a skill that needs to be taught. Communities committed to integrating the development of social capital into their career paths should consider ways to teach students how to leverage their “strong ties” – close relationships like family and best friends – and significantly broaden and engage their “weak ties” – acquaintances, friends of friends and others who can forge ties and create opportunities on their behalf.
  • Reinventing the possibilities of work-based learning. In recent years, there has been a significant growth in work-based learning, which can give students invaluable opportunities to apply classroom learning in a real workplace. But on-the-job learning isn’t just about acquiring technical skills. Workplace experiences that foster the growth of professional relationships can give students valuable connections that could one day open doors to employment in a field they may wish to pursue.
  • Expand opportunities for close peer mentoring. Relationships with working professionals are not the only valuable networks. Close peers of students – young people who are slightly older and have recently made the transition to higher education and/or work – can offer candid practical advice and be indispensable resources. Close-to-peer mentoring programs, which support high school students on their journey to post-secondary education, training and employment, can be very effective in fostering student success and enriching their networks.

Addressing inequalities in social capital will require systemic changes in how schools, educators, and community organizations actively recognize the value of the networks students already have, while facilitating their ability to grow and adapt. take advantage of new relationships. The five communities participating in this new initiative are taking important and concrete steps to make this idea a reality. It’s time to include social capital alongside the quality academic, professional, and professional experiences that are already established as essential elements for success. By taking a systematic approach to ensuring that tools and strategies for building social capital are central to all pathways, all students can reach their full potential.

David Etzwiler is CEO of the Siemens Foundation. Matthew Gandal is President and CEO of Education Strategy Group.

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