Last week, an important new study by Stanford researchers highlighted an alarming trend in the racial and socioeconomic composition of America’s neighborhoods: white and Asian-American middle-income families tend to live in middle-income neighborhoods, while black middle-income families tend to live in proportionately lower-income ones. And middle-income black families are more likely to live in a neighborhood with lower incomes than low-income white families. In other words, although racial segregation has been steadily declining and socioeconomic segregation has been increasing, exposure to poor neighborhoods still falls disproportionately along racial lines.
These neighborhood dynamics, in turn, appear to be widening racial disparities, including disparities in upward mobility. Minority children, of course, are not immune to the effects of these trends. As the researchers point out, where children grow up can have lasting impact; they cite a growing literature showing that “long-term exposure to neighborhood poverty has strong effects on cognitive and educational outcomes and teen pregnancy.”
Many commentators are pointing out how housing policy could change the course of these troubling findings. But if we intend to close achievement gaps amidst growing neighborhood disparities, schools often must step in to do the important work of leveling the playing field among children regardless of their zip code.
Among education reformers, neighborhood studies like these typically figure into debates about how to improve the quality of schools in predominantly low-income neighborhoods where students are less likely to benefit from high-quality teaching, positive peer effects, and formal and informal mentoring opportunities. In a recent paper, Michael Horn and I also suggest that in order to address the needs of low-income children, schools in these neighborhoods may need to integrate backward beyond simply delivering academics to supplying a range of poverty relief services.
Amidst these efforts to improve academic outcomes in neighborhood schools, however, we should also stretch our imaginations beyond the bounds that neighborhoods have typically defined. In the age of advanced technology, where children live—that is, the geographic boundaries and demographic that make up of their neighborhood—need not strictly define who they know and what they are exposed to each day in school.
A variety of new tools are emerging that stand to expand students’ networks and expose them to new people and contexts, regardless of where their families live. In schools using online mentoring platforms, like iCouldBe or Career Village, students can access online guidance from adults far beyond their neighborhoods on everything from how to effectively network to career advice. With college coaching services, from organizations like Beyond12 or Student Success Agency, students can broker relationships online with near peer mentors outside of their neighborhoods to help them get to and through college. And with project-based learning resources, like Educurious and Nepris, students can meet experts over video chat from a range of professions without ever leaving their classroom.
Efforts like these stand to expand and diversify children’s reservoir of social capital. A child’s pool of social capital is often equated with that of his neighborhood and family network. These new tools offer network-expanding opportunities directly to children that reach beyond the boundaries of their immediate networks where they live.
Deep ties with family and community are of course vitally important to a child’s development, and new-fangled tools do not stand to disrupt these strong ties. For decades, however, research has also shown the so-called “strength of weak ties”—that is, that an abundance of weak ties can add up to additional opportunities in the job market and in life, otherwise out of reach. Using technology tools like those described above, schools can begin to expand the range of weak ties at students’ disposal. These may prove especially important to level the playing field for children, growing up in poor neighborhoods, who otherwise may not know people who have graduated college, taken particular career paths, or lived in other parts of the country and world.
Expanding students’ networks is of course not a cure-all to enhancing social mobility. And haphazard attempts to cultivate ties among students and adults from different backgrounds could of course have detrimental effects, if the interactions are not reliable or framed in an appropriate manner. But network-expanding tools in schools are one promising inroad to combat the effects that neighborhood segregation can have on children’s future prospects. Where we live inevitably shapes our childhood; but neighborhood boundaries no longer need to define the boundaries of opportunity.