Several years ago now, I visited a new charter school in the shadows of Chicago’s public housing projects. The elementary school was part of the University of Chicago’s charter experiment, where some of the best minds in education reform had designed the curriculum and school structure. One thing that struck me about this particular school was its extent. It offered more than just good instruction. It was designed to become a centerpiece in the children’s lives.

The school day started early, with breakfast for the children. The school had afterschool programs in a variety of realms. It involved parents heavily. And it had Saturday and summer programs. Not only was it providing a haven for neighborhood children to stay clear of the gangs and other threats, but it was making school a central part of the families’ lives.

This approach, it turns out, is quite successful in increasing the performance of low-income children, as Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane write in the opening chapter of “Whither Opportunity?” But this approach is not easy. It is time-consuming, requires resources, and turns on well-trained teachers and innovative administrators. This is one reason, they write, why schools that dramatically improve the life chances of poor kids are the exception—and are often unable to sustain that success.

This concept of enveloping children in all things school and learning is apparent in another realm: after school. The Hive Learning Network is one model for doing that. The Hive is a group of cultural and youth-serving organizations in a city—currently Pittsburgh, New York, and Chicago, with more on the way—that are deliberately stitched together with coordinated programming to create a well-integrated ecosystem of learning opportunities, anywhere, anytime. Hives are founded on the belief that kids will follow their interests and learn by doing, and cities need to make sure that kids and their families can find those opportunities to develop those interests.

Hive Pittsburgh kicked off officially last week with our summer learning initiative Hive Days of Summer. And we were pleased to see this piece from EdWeek blogger Tom Vander Ark who spotlighted the work going on here to connect maker, digital and STEAM learning both in and outside of the classroom.

In a forthcoming book, Duncan and Murnane call for an educational infrastructure to support and sustain success in reducing the learning gap among low-income children. The infrastructure is the scaffolding that ensures that teachers and principals are supported and that provides the guidance and resources to sustain their efforts.

In each case, the participating schools benefited from significant educational infrastructure.  In one case, it comes from a school district’s Department of Early Childhood, in a second from a charter management organization, and in a third from a combination of not-for-profit organizations set up to support schools and from community partners.

In many respects, the Hive members are part of that infrastructure if they work to ensure that what the children learn in the out-of-school space makes it back into the classroom and supplements what the children are learning there. Pittsburgh is leading the charge in making sure that happens. The city’s programs and public schools are working in tandem to ensure that what the kids learn in and out of school meshes.

This infrastructure and the connection back into the classroom is also one element of “connected learning,” the theory guiding many of the Hive Networks. While there’s a lot of ideas and concepts in connected learning, one sticks out for me: the ability to weave together a path of engagement for kids, with school being just one node on that network of learning opportunities.

It seems that if kids can follow their interests and learn about color or electronics or whales in the museums and programs outside of school, and if they can continue to follow that interest with the help of mentors and teachers, they might become more engaged in school, and with that half the battle is won. The other half, of course, will always be the continued support of our classrooms and of those who spend their days ensuring that the next generation has a strong start off the blocks.