On the day Robert Blum visited the business class at a New York City high school, the boys were learning to tie neckties that had been supplied by the school's Dress for Success shop. The idea, he was told, was to teach young people how to make the kind of impression that might actually land them jobs: how to interview, how to speak, what to wear.
But the reason Blum, a Johns Hopkins University professor and pediatrician, tells the story is that the youngsters in this particular class -- "kids who would not have been presumed to be on academic trajectories" -- were making good grades, feeling good about themselves and feeling connected to their school.
"And suddenly a rote course -- which had been a parking place for nonacademic students -- has tremendous appeal," Blum says. "The odds for success for children for whom little success would have been predicted have gone up. And the way the kids feel about the school has changed dramatically."
The catalyst for this particular class was the effort of a couple of youth workers brought in by something called the Leadership Program. The upshot was a special new relationship with business students across the board. Teachers themselves ran the clothing drive for the Dress for Success shop.
But Blum makes a more universal point: the growing body of evidence that building emotional connections between young people and their schools improves their commitment to education and increases their ability to resist risky behavior.
Blum and the Wingspread Group -- 20 national education and health leaders whom he and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention convened this past summer at the Johnson Foundation's Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wis. -- issued a statement last week urging national action to combat the "culture of detachment" in U.S. schools.
They cited research showing that 40 to 60 percent of all students -- urban, suburban and rural -- are "chronically disengaged" from school. And these numbers don't include kids who drop out.
"We have a culture of detachment in our nation's schools," said Blum. "Essentially, we're telling kids they're on their own, and while many of them succeed, many don't. This is not acceptable."
The Wingspread Group's report comes out of a growing number of studies showing the importance of connectedness to youthful behavior. It echoes and complements the year-old report of the Commission on Children at Risk, that children develop best in authoritative and caring communities.
"Look, I'm a pediatrician, and I never expected to see my work going in this direction at all," Blum said in a telephone interview. "But I saw the power of connectedness in reducing health-risk behaviors -- obesity, suicidal thoughts and attempts, cigarette smoking, alcohol use, and transitions from moderate to more severe behaviors. This awareness needs to be ingrained in all our schools."
How did we lose it in the first place?
Blum hazards a guess. "Surely part of it is our romance with economies of scale, leading us to ever-larger institutions. But when you get a school with a thousand or more students, the interpersonal relationships get lost. Another factor is our unrelenting focus on the bottom line of academic productivity -- achievement tests -- rather than doing what is necessary to engage kids well enough and long enough so they are oriented toward long-term achievement."
And maybe part of it is even more universal than that. I have in mind our growing tendency to treat our children -- and ourselves -- as autonomous individuals, with little responsibility for or commitment to a larger community. Isn't it possible that this nurtured isolation -- which undoubtedly helps some of us to achieve success in everything from SAT scores to corporate careers -- also has the effect of leaving us less satisfied, and less fully human?
The Wingspread Group will shortly publish a number of interventions that schools might use to enhance the sense of connectedness among their students. "We're talking about bringing the soul back to the schools, a sense of community," Blum told me. "When you're a community, things happen. You start to see concern for every child. You start to hear things like, 'We expect you to do really well -- and if you miss, we'll help you succeed.' "
Unfortunately, budget-strapped school boards may see such concerns as insubstantial and "soft" -- as substitutes for improved test scores rather than as methods for achieving them.