Sociologist James Coleman developed the theory that human capital could be improved by social capital, which consists primarily of three resources-trust, values and norms. Communities can tap into the social capital found in relationships and institutions for their own benefit. Churches and congregations have long been a source of social capital within communities.
An interfaith network known as the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation (TIAF) draws on the social capital found within congregations. With the assistance of the TIAF, communities developed the Alliance Schools program which links congregations and communities to neighborhood schools. Together these groups drafted and implemented the legislation which supports the Alliance Schools program. Improved standardized test scores at many Alliance Schools have given the program credibility, and the TIAF continues to impact the education policy process.
Social capital is not simply measured by an analysis of standardized test scores. An ethnographic study of the relationship between two Catholic churches active in the TIAF affiliate Austin Interfaith, Cristo Rey and Our Lady of Guadalupe, and a premiere Alliance School, Zavala Elementary is examined to acquire an understanding of how social capital actually operates. Zavala accesses some social capital through its relationship with Cristo Rey, but congregation leaders are more concerned with housing and safety issues at this time. Therefore, the school relies more on other sources of social capital, like the network of Interfaith churches or parent relationships developed in the community.
As two models for achieving school change, the Alliance Schools program and the Chicago Public Schools decentralization are compared. The Chicago model implements more systematic change, but induces varied results because many low-income communities are not sufficiently organized around the schools. In contrast, the Alliance Schools program mobilizes communities through its link to local congregations and by drawing on common faith traditions and values. To maintain this bond, the Alliance Schools will perhaps never be a program for systematic reform. Instead, Austin Interfaith leaders envision the Alliance Schools as a "leaven" that will "raise" the standards for schools from within the system.