At Albuquerque Public Schools, a Commitment to Meaningful Family Engagement

April 13, 2018

“We are dedicated to running FAST with passion. We are here for the families – to empower parents and support our students.” Monica Garcia, FAST Specialist and Certified FAST Trainer at APS

Albuquerque Public Schools (APS), serving approximately 84,000 students in 142 schools across the city and beyond, has long valued the importance of family engagement. Steeped in the rich history of the 300 year old city, APS is dedicated to supporting students and their families, about 70% of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch and about 15% are English Language Learners, both in and outside of the classroom.

Housed within the district is the Coordinated School Health Department, which “connects students, schools, families and community partners to opportunities and services that reduce barriers to learning and promote student and school success.” Family and Community Engagement, among others, resides within this department, and oversees several programs, including FAST®, which the district has been running for 13 years.

“Overall, our job is to make sure schools are healthy for both students and staff to thrive. We also provide support to principals to make sure they can be as effective in their roles as possible,” says Chelanna Carter, Manager of Family Engagement and Certified FAST Trainer at APS. The Family Engagement staff works with all schools across the district, supporting each school’s individual needs.

The Family Engagement staff has been hard at work creating a digital library of videos to help parents navigate the district, under a support called Families Connected. Working with parent liaisons to identify the most common questions from parents, and with funding from the Nusenda Foundation. The team has created these videos (one of which highlights the Graduate Profile, developed by United Way of Central New Mexico’s Mission: Graduate), which are accessible to parents at any time, and equip parents with the information they need to best advocate for their children.

The Family Engagement staff provides additional support and resources to schools through the School Training for Engagement Planning, or STEP. “Through STEP, school-based teams comprised of administrators, family liaisons, and parents, are trained by our team in the basics of family engagement. They then create an action plan for implementing family engagement at their school and work with our department, as needed, to implement their plan,” says Ms. Carter.

For some of the schools, part of their action plan involves running FAST at the school. Since APS first received funding for FAST through the City of Albuquerque in 2005, they have run just over 70 cycles at 14 different schools and graduated around 450 families from the program. The amazing outcomes for these families are still made possible through support from the City of Albuquerque, all these years later. “I always say that FAST isn’t for anyone specifically; it is for everyone. No matter how great of a parent you are, we are all faced with challenges, and sometimes even crises,” says Ms. Carter. “Many of our parents are working multiple jobs, and don’t have much time with their families. We can’t give them more time, but with FAST, we can give parents the tools to make the time they do have with their families more meaningful and special.”

One of those first FAST Parent Graduates was Monica Garcia. Ms. Garcia currently works as the FAST Specialist for APS, but she first learned about the program when she was recruited, as a parent, to participate with her family. “We did FAST together as a family when my son was 10,” recalls Ms. Garcia. “At first, we weren’t sure about the program. I was dealing with some personal challenges in my family, and my son wasn’t sure he would like the program.”

Nevertheless, Ms. Garcia and her family went to the first night of FAST and eventually graduated from the program. “My son really liked the time we got to spend together, and he made new friends, as well,” remembers Ms. Garcia. “For me, I got a chance to meet other parents, and realized that I wasn’t the only one dealing with challenges. I became very close with some of the parents, especially the Parent Partner. Our families are very close still to this day.”

Ms. Garcia worked full-time and her children would stay with her mother while she was at work. When her brother, who was living with her mother, got into trouble with the law and was eventually incarcerated, it was very hard on Ms. Garcia and her family. The friendships she formed in FAST helped support her through tough times. “I realized that it’s okay for us to accept where we come from and what we’ve gone through. It isn’t anything to be ashamed about; we all have our own challenges.”

After participating in the program as a parent, Ms. Garcia became a Parent Partner for the team, working with and supporting parents as they participated in FAST, and eventually moved into her current position as FAST Specialist. Last year, she organized a large FASTWORKS event, bringing together families from all of the six schools which had been running FAST. About 100 families volunteered at the local foodbank, followed by a picnic at the park. Ms. Garcia is currently planning another event, taking place in May of this year. “It was a great experience. We were able to pay it forward to the community, and show our children the importance of helping out and doing good deeds.”

“Over the last couple of years, we’ve been very focused on building effective community partnerships, so we can combine resources to make sure we are best serving our families” says Ms. Carter. In this effort, APS has been using FAST as a way to support and connect refugee families living in the area, in particular families coming from Syria. “What we found was that FAST gave these families a way to really connect to the community and put down roots,” says Ms. Carter. Fortunately, the FAST Team was able to find a teacher who had recently moved to the US, from Egypt, and could speak Arabic. Ms. Carter worked with her to train her in the program. “It was great to find someone so willing to jump in, learn the program, and be part of our team,” says Ms. Carter.

APS typically operates programs in Spanish and English, but has expanded to include languages such as Burmese, Navajo, and now Arabic, in an effort to be inclusive of all families in a diverse community. Both Ms. Garcia and Ms. Carter agree that the success of their FAST Programs comes down, in part, to strong, dedicated teams. “Many of our team members have been doing FAST for a long time, and they are really dedicated to helping and supporting families,” says Ms. Carter. “They can say to parents, ‘I’ve been there – let me tell you what I did and what helped me.’”

Team Members also receive additional training, outside of FAST, to help them support families with specific needs. For example, Team Members have received training on health insurance options for non-residents and domestic violence intervention, and worked with the Children’s Grief Center on how to support families who are coping with the recent loss of a loved one. “When Team Members can see the impact that they and the program are having on families, it makes them feel good, and reaffirms their commitment to the program and to the families in the community,” says Ms. Garcia.

For a single father with three children, FAST has meant the opportunity to connect and form friendships with other parents, who can provide support and answer questions. He has participated in the program with each child as his FAST Child. Parent Group even helped him with his stutter. The program has also given him the opportunity to connect with school staff and resources in the community. “He’s had a lot that he’s had to deal with, but as we’ve all gotten to know him, he is no longer afraid to come to us with a problem or to ask for help,” comments Ms. Carter.

Overall, the program has a very positive impact on the families at APS. “Parents get more involved at the school, go back to school themselves, and even become FAST Team Members,” says Ms. Garcia. “We can see a major improvement in behavior for some children as early as week three,” says Ms. Carter. “There have been students who have participated in FAST who would go from spending time in the principal’s office every day, to not once in a week, just after a few weeks of FAST.”