The best school is the one that teaches kids effectively while also grooming them for life as capable adults.
According to Harvard University professor Paul Reville, these schools are few and far between. Many need a lot of outside help to fulfill their mission of holistic development.
That's why Reville and his faculty at Harvard's Graduate School of Education are launching By All Means, a national program that, over the next few years, will help schools in six cities across the US deal with specific local challenges that hinder students' success.
Instead of making schools shoulder the burden of systemic inequality, in other words, By All Means will recruit the entire community to pitch in to level the playing field.
A community whose main public school sees a large homeless youth population, for example, could work with a local shelter to help kids complete assignments. A school without that support network would be forced to deal with the problem on its own, taking away from other responsibilities.
The six cities are: Oakland, California; Louisville, Kentucky; Providence, Rhode Island; and the Massachusetts towns of Somerville, Newton, and Salem. Reville expects each one to face a unique set of challenges, whether it's, say, a lack of medical care in Oakland, a lack of technology access in Providence, or a homeless youth population in Salem.
"Communities have a tremendous amount of resources to bring to the table in terms of meeting the challenge of educating all kids to high levels," Reville tells Tech Insider.
To implement the system, Harvard will hire consultants in each of the six cities to act as liaisons between the local mayor, the school superintendents, teachers, and parents. The group of community members will be known as a "children's cabinet." Over the course of the multiyear project, the cabinets will convene at Harvard five times to report on the health of their local programs.
Reville's greatest hope for the project is that it gives clear data on the strength of community involvement in education. "In the course of doing that, we'll help propagate some other success stories across the country" he says." And we will have identified some policy work we'll need to do to eliminate the barriers."
One glaring example of those barriers is a startling and well-documented trend known as the "summer setback." Kids from wealthier families prize education and enrichment during the summer, sociologist Annette Lareau notes in her book "Unequal Childhoods," while poorer families tend to value free, unstructured play.
As a result, kids from well-off families retain more of their education come September, and each summer the knowledge gap between the two socioeconomic classes grows, thereby affecting overall achievement.
Reville wants By All Means to make summer education more accessible for low-income families.
"Instead of treating access to summer learning an accident of birth," he says, "you treat it as a critical part of a public education and, therefore, an entitlement." That means offering free or subsidized programs that exist outside of normal summer camp, so lower-income kids can keep both their bodies and minds active.
The cities themselves will be responsible for determining what their program will look like. If all goes well, By All Means will follow up its inaugural run with a second group of forward-thinking cities in the coming years.
"This is an iterative process. We don't expect to build new systems overnight," Reville says. "But we expect to learn a bunch of lessons that then take us one step up the mountain, and then we establish a new base, and we work from that base as we advance forward."