Parent engagement program celebrates creating bonds with families

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It certainly felt and sounded like summer at the end-of-the-year celebration for the Families and Schools Together (FAST) program on Friday. In Franklin Square, students and their families enjoyed food, music, and games – and celebrated the completion of FAST’s eight-week program.

FAST is an internationally known parent engagement program that locally is run by Turning Points for Children, a social service agency in Philadelphia. The program supports the relationships among students, families, and their schools, helping to create the bonds necessary for children to thrive. FAST operated in 15 Philadelphia schools last fall and 30 schools in the spring of 2015. Carla Thompson, the Turning Points for Children program management director, said the program hopes to expand to 46 schools next year.

“There’s a culture of FAST that’s in the schools,” Thompson said. “If you run into somebody who’s been a FAST family, there’s a bond that they have.”

Students who participate in FAST bring their family members along to weekly meetings after school. These sessions, which typically last two and half hours, focus on strengthening the family dynamic. For example, students and their families learn to collaborate by sharing meals and working together to complete activities.

In one of the first experiences at FAST, for instance, students work with their families to construct a “family flag” that “symbolizes union,” said Thompson. There is also time to break off into parent-only and student-only groups where they learn from one another before coming back to a group setting.

FAST is an expansive program that engages members from all areas of the community. It has a network of volunteers – parent partners, school partners, community partners, and recreation partners – who each play a role in making the program run smoothly. Parent partners get parents involved in the program, school partners collaborate with teachers and principals to gauge the effectiveness of the program, community partners help to link families with resources, and recreation partners develop activities that are centered on the child.

FAST holds events for the families even after the eight-week session ends in what the program calls FAST Works. These events allow families to continue working on their relationship-building skills.

FAST also runs pre- and post-tests to collect information about the program’s effectiveness. According to a FAST fact sheet, in 2015, suspensions among FAST students decreased by 63 percent and poor conduct decreased by 39 percent. Prosocial behavior improved for 36 percent of FAST students, and parent involvement increased by 55 percent.

Kia Cooper-Gray, a parent of a former FAST student and now a parent partner, said that she has noticed some of the effects of the program in her own family. Cooper-Gray first learned about FAST a couple of years ago when her daughter, Kahmira, then a 6th grader at Universal Vare Middle School, came home with a piece of paper describing the program. Cooper-Gray said that she thought that the program would be a good “chance for working parents to get involved,” so she decided to participate.

Cooper-Gray said that she learned “to be more interactive with people” through the program, and now she uses that skill in her role as a parent partner. Cooper-Gray makes calls to other parents, letting them know about upcoming events and encouraging them to attend program meetings.

“Now I talk to other parents about the experience and hope that they join us,” said Cooper-Gray.

Jennifer Katchk, another parent partner, said that FAST offered her an opportunity to connect with her daughter, a kindergartner at Vare-Washington Elementary. She heard about FAST at her daughter’s afterschool program, and immediately signed up.

They went through the FAST program during the spring session this year.

She said she spent “quality, one-on-one time with my daughter. It brought me and my 6-year-old closer.”