Building students’ networks is imperative. Here’s how to make it a routine part of education.

December 7, 2023

In July 2023, our team published “People-powered pathways: Lessons in how to build students’ social capital through career-connected learning.” In the report, we describe successes and challenges in bringing social capital–building strategies to a variety of educational settings. Our observations draw from an 18-month pilot during which we leveraged our social capital playbook to provide direct support to a group of three intermediary organizations—Education Strategy Group, Generation Schools Network, and Hawai‘i P-20—collectively supporting 20 sites in the K–12 career pathways space. In the course of the pilot, we sought to understand how schools and nonprofits can make social capital-building an explicit, effective, and equitable component of existing career-connected learning models. 

During our pilot, it was no surprise that leaders and practitioners who were passionate and committed to building students’ networks were able to quickly implement social capital programming. These individuals often found efficient and creative ways to secure buy-in, provide training to staff, mobilize resources, and design engaging student experiences.

But key staff members are bound to change over time. To sustain these practices over the long term, they must be institutionalized by embedding them into curricula, roles, and data systems. One intermediary staff member observed,

“If you have multiple people leave, or just someone leave from a school, you need to bring someone on that has the skill set that I would have in terms of the college and career work that I do, and all the social capital, knowledge, and institutional knowledge I have with social capital.”

Sites that were successful in this regard usually employed at least one of the following levers for sustainability: First, some sites designated roles specifically intended to help students build networks. Allocating a budget for relationship brokers served to legitimize the role in the eyes of organizational staff, and allowed them to place trust in the institution rather than a single individual.

Second, some were able to codify relationship-oriented requirements for specific courses and tracks. These requirements facilitated the spread of social capital-building by getting larger numbers of teachers and staff to design experiences that ensure students meet those milestones.

Third, some created measurement systems to use data as a starting point for conversations about how social capital and other career-connected outcomes can benefit students. The hope was that, over time, these measurement systems could create an organizational culture centered around career competencies, rather than academic achievement alone.

Barriers to buy-in

Although these efforts to systematize social capital-building are promising, several challenges also emerged with respect to sustainability. Some pilot sites were run in isolated pockets of a school or organization. While pilot initiatives are typically tested in a smaller, more siloed fashion, this sometimes made it difficult to secure buy-in from personnel outside of those pockets.

In addition, some sites’ activities were contingent on a permanent capacity they didn’t have, such as providing staff with training in brokering relationships or providing students with engaging experiential learning opportunities.

Finally, some sites weren’t able to codify social capital within a broader organizational strategy. Without this connection to a specific vision, it was easy for social capital to fall by the wayside.

In short, creating systems that routinize social capital-building requires buy-in from both leaders and practitioners. In both cases, providing clear evidence that social capital improves high-priority outcomes can generate support for scale.

Below are two examples of scaling strategies undertaken by Hawaii Workforce Pipeline (HWP), a work-based learning nonprofit that connects teachers and students with industry professionals in careers they want to explore; and Generation Schools Network (GSN), a nonprofit that works with K–12 school districts in Colorado to implement equitable community- and career-connected learning, with the goal of ensuring students’ access to opportunities for economic mobility.

Examples in action

From the start of the pilot, HWP’s staff were enthusiastic and ambitious, quickly adapting students’ internship training to include activities to help students think about how to build social capital during their internship experiences.

Thinking of the future, HWP staff then collaborated with O‘ahu’s Windward District to add social capital milestones to their Career and Technical Education program. Around the same time, the Hawai‘i Department of Education announced the allocation of funds to employ a work-based learning intermediary at every high school throughout the state. This development proved especially encouraging because it created the potential to systematize HWP’s work across other districts that now have personnel specifically dedicated to this role.

While HWP’s plan for sustainability emerged as the pilot unfolded, GSN employed a more deliberate, two-pronged approach to systematizing social capital. On one front, GSN targeted the practitioner level by recruiting teachers to implement social capital-building as part of a “real world problem scenario,” evaluating feedback from teachers and investigating effects on students’ career readiness.

At the same time, they developed community- and career-connected learning dashboards to create a conversation among district leaders about the vision for, and purpose of, career-connected learning. Ultimately, the aim is for these bottom-up and top-down efforts to converge around a host of promising strategies to accomplish that vision.

The pilot sites and intermediaries in our study have shown what’s possible—and what challenges to expect—when organizations begin to get strategic about social capital-building. They are demonstrating a path forward to scaling practices that have research in their favor.

Ultimately, our hope is that institutions blazing more holistic and equitable career pathways can use these insights to take the concept of “relationships matter” from perception to purpose.

Robert Markle

Robert Markle, PhD is a research manager at the Christensen Institute. His work focuses on increasing awareness and adoption of emerging practices for expanding students’ access to opportunity, economic mobility, and personal well-being. Given Dr. Markle’s background in implementation science, he is interested in how relationship-based initiatives can be optimized for local contexts to maximize their effectiveness.

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