Family Engagement: Lasting Positive Impact

Last Updated: December 17, 2013

This article appeared in the December 2013 Rural Policy Matters.

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“This work is really all about relationship building,” says Rochelle Garrett, Family Partnership Director at Partners for Education at Berea College. Garrett coordinates family engagement efforts across the College’s preK–12 federal grant programs, including the Promise Neighborhood initiative. “It is all about building relationships, and when we have activities and events surrounding family engagement, then families will participate and attend once that relationship has been established,” she adds.

Promise Neighborhood prioritizes family and community engagement and support as key to creating the conditions that enable children to thrive in school and in life.

Garrett describes the work as spanning both macro conditions and micro contexts. At the macro level, it works to support opportunities for all families to strengthen their financial awareness and asset building, and to become more directly involved with their children’s schools. At the micro level, the work reaches into communities with activities, parent groups, and programs that respond to the interests and needs of local families. The family engagement program also reaches out to establish relationships with families and collaborates with other Promise Neighborhood initiatives to integrate family engagement strategies across all aspects of the work.

Macro level family engagement work

Financial asset building

Partners for Education collaborates with the Eastern Kentucky Asset Building Coalition. “That program helps families build financial assets with savings plans, college planning, and tax preparation,” Garrett explains.

FAST—Families and Schools Together

The evidence-based FAST program is a multi-faceted approach to supporting and strengthening families and helping kids succeed in school and in life. “FAST is something we do in most of our schools,” says Garrett. “Any family can participate and, it is a fun way to get the whole family engaged. The number of families participating and continuing through all eight sessions indicates participants find it meaningful and enjoyable.”

In Phase 1, a team including parents and school and community-based partners identify interests and needs of families in the communities. They use this information within the FAST framework to create content for Phase 2. At the middle and high school level, student leadership roles are encouraged and supported, and students are very involved in planning and selecting topics.

Phase 2 is an eight-week family centric program for any interested family. The whole family gets together at the school once a week for an evening meal and the FAST program. That program includes family activities and breakouts for caregivers, students, and siblings. Adults talk about what’s happening at school, strategies for supporting children, strengthening communication within the family, and specific topics of interest to the group. This parent support group takes place without school partners present. Built into the program are avenues to eliminate challenges families encounter with participation. For example, a family meal together and child care are provided, and there are children’s activities, family time, and reciprocation activities. In parent group, caregivers are given an opportunity to do some social networking and to realize how much value they have as people, as well as parents.

“FAST programs build bonds within families and with other families and the school,” says Garrett. “We have had some FAST parents who decided to go to college themselves or to get their GED as they began to realize what a difference it could make for their children’s future.”

In Phase 3, participants continue to look at data, including Phase 2 surveys and feedback, and plan next steps.

Phase 4, FASTWORKS, an acronym for World’s Opportunity to Raise Kids Successfully,is a culmination of the relationships established in FAST at the school, placed in a communal setting, giving the power to the families in uniting and giving back to their communities. “The participating family and FAST child commit to coming together every FASTWORKS session for at least 15 minutes of dialogue,” explains Garrett. “The idea is to continue to build the skills and habits of communication and bonding that a family carries into the future. FASTWORKS groups choose what they want to do as a group, be that community service projects, movie nights, educational workshops, or college visits with their children. ”

Governor’s Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership (GCIPL)

Partners for Education parents have the opportunity to participate in a six-day training offered through GCIPL, a program that provides opportunities for “parents to develop their school leadership and advocacy skills. “Parents learn about policies like Common Core standards and READY KENTUCKY to understand school testing and interpreting results. It also breaks down communication barriers, allowing them to learn the vocabulary used by school-based staff and get a handle on school lingo,” says Garrett.

“The parents also create a grant funded project. They choose a program that incorporates three mandatory items: one, it creates a lasting impact for sustaining change in the school community; two, it involves other parents; and, three, it is based on improving student achievement. Parents are given ownership for what they would like to see in their school and take the lead for creating and implementing it.” The program has been very successful in building parent leadership within local schools.

 Micro-level family engagement work

“Community engagement work at the micro level can look very different across communities because every community is different,” says Garrett.

Each Promise Neighborhood County has a Family Engagement Specialist. That person develops specific programming in response to community interests, coordinates with other aspects of the work, and does outreach with families and other partners.

As an example, Owsley County developed a group just for grandparents raising their grandchildren. “There are a tremendous variety of issues presented to grandparents in this situation, and school is so different than when they were raising their children,” says Garrett. The popular program offers support and fun ways to help grandparents learn school information and pop cultural references. For example, a game styled after Jeopardy! includes categories like School Social Club Acronyms and Teen and College Slang.

A scene from the original play “Home Song,” based on local stories and history that was developed as part of an after-school Arts residency.
One of the games developed for the grandparent group as part of the school's family engagement program. Photo courtesy of Berea College. 

Local parent engagement groups have held kindergarten picnics for incoming children and their families. They’ve opened up conversations and formed study groups. They regularly collaborate with nutrition and wellness programs and in arts residencies. They keep an eye on progress and new challenges to measure the impact of their work, and they project where the next steps need to go.

Garrett notes that these transportation challenges are ongoing. Due to geographic conditions, “Parents may be working in another community; kids don’t get home until 4:30; everyone’s tired. Maybe the vehicle is not in good working order or gas is low. It takes a strong amount of commitment and resources to get in the car and drive 25 minutes or more to school and back. We do try to address transportation challenges, sometimes with vans or buses for special events, like our annual all grant Family Event, or sometimes with other arrangements if they can be worked out.”

Parent engagement can require an intense amount of time and genuine relationship building. But the payoffs continue to multiply. “I love parent engagement work,” Garrett says. “It’s very rewarding, and it’s one of the best ways to create lasting positive impact for students and families.”


Read more from the December 2013 Rural Policy Matters.