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Social Capital: A Panacea for Educational Diversity?

Social Capital: A Panacea for Educational Diversity?

How many times have we heard that schools that service underprepared students, especially in disadvantaged areas, don’t have the luxury of an equal starting line in the race for success? Instead, we’re told, they are burdened with compensating for social, economic, political and environmental ills. The panacea that is often offered is invariably tied to economic educational reform: more resources and more political clout to enforce laws and the promise of equity.
But even in the educational setting where this type of reform has occurred, the educational gains have been modest and short term. How can this be? Hasn’t this been the mantra of political and educational forecasters?
In his latest book, author and educator Gene I. Maeroff asks readers to shift their focus to a formula for success that gives primary consideration not to economics, structures and politics, but to the critical networks and support systems outside of a school that extend from homes, churches, community groups/organizations and back to the school. Altered Destinies: Making Life Better for Schoolchildren in Need, uses the concept of “social capital” as the most critical factor differentiating the advantaged head start of well-to-do and White children from the persistent catch-up posture of children in need.
Social capital, a term originally coined by sociologist James Coleman, refers to the seamless network that links all types of categories and experiences: social, parental, educational, personal and psychological.
 Strengthening Social Capital
Maeroff is passionate in his contention that true educational reform will occur only when we buttress the undergirding of this social capital by promoting four areas:
A Sense of Connected-ness: students to schools, communities to schools, parents to students, and parents to schools.
A Sense of Well-being: the physical, emotional and psychological health of students.
A Sense of Academic Initiative: student motivation, work ethic and engagement in and outside of class.
A Sense of Knowing: the quality and quantity of knowledge both academic and social possessed by the student.
The author spends the major part of the book outlining a process to build social capital. It is only fair to ask, “How realistic is his diagnosis and suggested remedy?” The answer to this question emerges from the strengths of this book. Among these strengths are:
n  A thorough delineation of programs, schools and organizations that can serve as success models for the effective harnessing and development of social capital;
n  The reader is pressed to reconstruct conventional thinking about school — its role in the community, its physical structure, the new roles to be played by teachers, administrators and students, the addition of non-institution activities;
n  The author emphasizes that there are multiple ways to accomplish the same goal, for example, in how health care services are delivered to children through school-community links;
n  The book is evidence that school connections don’t have to be traditional; they can take many forms, as churches, banks, colleges businesses, social service programs, city governments and federal; government programs;
n  The reader vicariously experiences the sense of empowerment that students and ultimately communities develop as they effectively organize.

Diversity and the Educational Landscape
Maeroff doesn’t just talk about student self-development and well-being of impoverished inner-city schools, but also in the farmland of Rush County, Wis. In both environments grim economic circumstances lower the self-esteem of the parents and hence the children.
The examples that he offers and the programs that he cites cross all demographic categories—race, ethnicity, gender, culture, class, etc. In every type of setting where we identify children in need and impoverished communities, the struggles to promote success can be enormous. Rosemary Allen, a teacher in Newark, casts it graphically as a clash of cultures between what the school asks of children and what their indigenous culture demands.
Perhaps culture should be used as an asset? When the link between the school and community resides in a cultural bond it may develop faster and last longer. Such is the case in the bond that exists between Christopher Columbus Elementary School and Centro, a community-help organization in New Haven, Conn. Both entities are rooted in Puerto Rican culture. Cultural bonds enhance the sense of ownership for everyone involved in the partnership.
Promoting Well-Being and Security
Schools must begin to see themselves as family resource centers, both conceptually and practically. This implies that they offer a full or an increased array of services. Perhaps they will extend their hours to tackle community problems outside of class. In some cases, Maeroff argues, class time should be given over to community betterment. Why? Because effective learning may be undercut if problems that are external to the school persist.
For any individual, group or program that is serious about educational reform at the K-12 level Altered Destinies is a must– read. It is a “can–do” roadmap that is replete with example and suggestions. This book addresses the difficulties associated with righting wrongs and elevating the “social capital” of any community.                                                          
  — James Anderson
Vice Provost for Undergraduate Affairs North Carolina State University.

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