Within three weeks of starting her position as Director of Family & Community Initiatives at One City Schools in Madison, Wisconsin, Ms. Marilyn Ruffin was on a flight to Cleveland, Ohio, to attend the 2017 FAST Training of Trainers conference – the FAST Program was to be one of the main components of her new job.
Despite having little prior knowledge of FAST, Ms. Ruffin described the conference as a positive experience in helping to prepare her to lead One City’s FAST Team.
“I couldn’t even spell FAST!” Ms. Ruffin laughed. “Bless the teachers and other participants who had already been through FAST, they were able to answer all of my questions…It was amazing.”
At the time, One City Schools was celebrating the completion of its first year of a two-year pilot of the program, which had been implemented shortly after One City was founded in 2015. Currently, One City includes two schools: a Junior Preschool, supporting children from 1 to 3 years old, and a Senior Preschool, supporting children from 4 to 5 years old. The organization has future plans to expand with a tuition-free public charter school which will eventually serve children through sixth grade.
Notably, One City’s founding approach to education emphasizes “working with parents and the community to cultivate children who are capable of and committed to empowering others and changing the world, their families and their communities for the better.”
“I always tell people: we involve the child, we involve the whole family. When we involve the whole family, no one gets left behind at One City,” said Ms. Ruffin.
Under the guidance of Families & Schools Together Founder Dr. Lynn McDonald, who also serves on One City’s Board of Directors, and along with the assistance of a number of generous grants, One City officially launched its FAST pilot in 2016. By 2017, FAST had become a core part of the schools’ “efforts to strengthen bonds between parents and their children, and parents and our school,” according to Kaleem Caire, the founder of One City, as quoted in an article by Madison365.
Now in its third year, FAST at One City has graduated approximately thirty families (who are still enrolled in the district). Ms. Ruffin attributes this success to the“back to the basics” nature of FAST and its activities – putting technology away, playing, communicating, eating dinner together and enjoying one another’s company.
Angelique Miller, a recent FAST Graduate who first began as a volunteer at One City, described her family’s experience in the program as “very natural.”
“There’s so much to be said about having a safe space for parents to talk and ask questions – not feeling like anyone is going to look down on you or think you’re a bad parent,” said Ms. Miller. “It felt very organic that the parents were genuinely trying to be better parents, asking for advice and giving advice.”
But convincing families to commit to the eight-week FAST session is not always an easy task. According to Ms. Ruffin, one of the keys to overcoming this challenge has been working to shift families’ focus to one week at a time. Oftentimes, this shift takes time. In her role as FAST Coordinator, Ms. Ruffin values persistence in recruitment, respecting families’ decisions if they initially choose not to participate but promising to return to them for the next cycle.
“Families like that. I probably try three times, and then they can’t make an excuse by the fourth time!” said Ms. Ruffin. “I tell them, ‘It’s that time again!’ And sure enough – [once families join] they truly enjoy being in FAST.”
Ms. Miller was one parent initially overwhelmed by the thought of an eight-week commitment.
“It sounds like a lot, but, once you’re in it, it’s a relaxing evening where you don’t have to think about those things you usually have to think about,” like cooking dinner (with the exception of preparing one FAST meal), she said. “When you’re done, you just feel that sense of accomplishment: you did it, you got through it and you learned something from it.”
While FAST does provide valuable opportunities for learning over the course of eight weeks, it is the memories made by families during this time that are priceless.
Ms. Ruffin personally enjoys documenting each cycle with “a gazillion” pictures of families together, collecting the images for personal photo boards which she presents to each family at graduation. For Ms. Ruffin, one of the greatest successes of the program was being able to present one FAST Family a photo album filled with memories of a father and his four-year-old daughter together after the father unexpectedly passed away.
At One City, FAST is truly about the families, according to Ms. Ruffin – it is about empowering parents to help serve the best interests of their children and connecting families with one another so that they know they are not alone in the struggles or triumphs they are experiencing. Ms. Ruffin’s advice is to communicate this message to families, and to let them know the FAST Team is there to support them.
“It’s not about us, it’s about them,” Ms. Ruffin emphasized.