This post was originally published by the Christensen Institute

In recent years, new roles have begun to crop up in schools: advocates who support the social side of students’ lives. These emerging roles vary. But by and large, they aim to overcome the enduring structural barriers that separate social supports and academics in our traditional system. These new roles involve coordinating additional student services inside of school and connecting students to more opportunities beyond schools.

Why are school systems investing beyond the classroom? Put simply, by integrating more factors that influence students’ lives into their designs, schools stand to boost performance. This phenomenon is actually well studied beyond education. Across industries, when firms are trying to improve dramatically, they often wrap their arms around the various and sundry components that stand to impact performance.

Through the lens of Modularity Theory, our decades-long struggle to close race- and income-based achievement gaps suggests that schools may be grappling with the consequences of a system that has prematurely modularized. The different components that make up a student’s life chances and academic success—like healthcare, family support services, academics, and diverse networks into the knowledge economy—currently fit into stubborn silos. The social aspects of students’ lives are rarely accounted for in how we fund and organize schools. And strict interfaces separate what happens inside of school from what happens beyond it. As a result, schools often find themselves trying to help students thrive with one hand tied behind their back.

Short of radically restructuring youth-facing funding streams or the school system writ large, how might schools innovate in ways that overcome this modular system? One answer: hire someone who can traverse the boundaries that such siloed systems leave in their wake.

Here are four examples of school systems doing just that, with new hires poised to knit together disparate student services, support, and community-based opportunities.

School Site Coordinator at City Connects

City Connects is a Boston-based nonprofit that aims to address barriers to learning in children’s lives, by coordinating relationships between community partners and agencies with schools and teachers. The model—which has shown extremely promising academic results—hinges on the organization’s School site coordinators (SSC’s). SSC’s are typically master’s level school counselors or social workers that function like a staff member at schools. At the beginning of the school year, teachers meet with these coordinators to discuss the individual developmental strengths and weaknesses of each and every student in the class across several domains: students’ academic, social-emotional, health, and family circumstances. Based on these individual assessments, coordinators connect students’ to myriad services, supports, and opportunities in their communities.

Advocate Counselors at Bronx Arena

In a similar vein, some schools are hiring for roles that put social supports on par with academics inside the classroom. The Learning Accelerator recently released an excellent deep dive report into the innovative approaches afoot at Bronx Arena High School, an alternative high school that serves over-age and under-credited students in grades 9-12 in the Bronx borough of New York City. At Bronx Arena, advocate counselors on their staff work alongside generalist teachers to support students in everything from academic goal setting to emotional health. As one administrator put it, the job is a jack-of-all-trades role “to stabilize a student not just in school, but in life.”

Learner Advocates at ReSchool

Learner advocates are a core component of ReSchool Colorado’s vision of a more flexible and unbundled learning model across the state of Colorado. ReSchool—an effort of the Donnell-Kay Foundation—realized that in order to build an equitable model of flexible and open learning, families and students would need someone to help them navigate options and bundle the best learning experiences to fit their needs and interests. These advocates meet with parents and learners to address their learning goals. From there, much as a social worker might, the advocates create profiles with parents and children to identify their needs, strengths, and aspirations. Then with support from a curated list provided by ReSchools’ Learner Advocate Network, advocates connect families and learners to educational opportunities and additional supports and resources.

Opportunity Wrangler at One Stone

One Stone is a student-led and directed nonprofit in Boise, Idaho that operates a tuition-free afterschool program and high school. Among other things, the One Stone model is premised on community-based, project-based learning in which students use design thinking to generate solutions to real-world challenges. As such, the model depends on ensuring that all students have access to opportunities and connections beyond school. Enter the school’s Opportunity wrangler—also dubbed its community engagement director—who works closely with local businesses to open doors for students to engage in projects and internships.

Readers may wonder if these roles are actually just old practice by a new name. After all, most teachers, counselors, and leaders already do their best to tackle some or all of the tasks enumerated above. Teachers coordinate with families; guidance counselors help students with academic goal setting; principals broker new opportunities with local businesses or nonprofits.

But by placing those responsibilities into full-time roles, these four models signal an effort to formalize what has often been left to chance or some blind hope that existing staff will go above and beyond. Instead, all four exemplify school systems investing in a deliberate manner to connect students to supports and opportunities. It’s an encouraging sign that schools are finally heeding the importance of the social side of students’ lives.

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Julia Freeland Fisher is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.

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