At the Indian Community School of Milwaukee, FAST helps build trust between families and the school

November 28, 2017

“It is not just the school staff who is educating the students, but also, crucially, the parents, the families, and the community.” – Shelly Cornelius, Social Worker and FAST Team Member

Indian Community School of Milwaukee (ICS) has been educating American Indian students in the Milwaukee area for nearly 50 years with a mission to “cultivate an enduring cultural identity and critical thinking by weaving indigenous teachings with a distinguished learning environment.” While there are many schools around the country that serve Native American students, most of these schools are based on reservations. ICS is located in a metropolitan area and educates students from many different tribes. Three tribal languages are taught at the school and culture is integrated into all elements in order to foster a strong cultural identity, as well as academic excellence.

ICS has long recognized that engaging and supporting families is a critical component to educating students. At the ICS Family Resource Center, located on campus, families have easy access to many services, including a school-based playgroup for parents and families of children ages birth to five (that helps ease the transition into the school), parent education for new and young parents, information and resources on child development, and emergency support for families that may face a personal crisis, for example, a fire in their home.

In 2002, FAST became part of the wheelhouse of programs ICS offers to students and their families. “Our previous education director was focused on evidence-based practices, which at the time was a newer concept. When she met Dr. Lynn McDonald and learned about FAST, she was immediately interested,” said Shelly Cornelius, a Social Worker and FAST Team Member at ICS. Shortly thereafter, the FAST Team started their first FAST Team Training. “We were anxious about how the first night of the program was going to go. There are many moving parts to the program, and we wanted to make sure we did everything right. Thanks to the support of our Trainer, we had a very successful first program,” said Ms. Cornelius.

All ten of the families who agreed to attend FAST, graduated from the program, meaning they attended at least 6 of the 8 weekly sessions. The success of the program convinced the staff at ICS that FAST was a program they wanted to continue to offer to their families. They advocated with their board, and FAST has continued at ICS ever since. “One of the most critical pieces about FAST, for us, is that it helps build trust between the school staff and the families,” said Ms. Cornelius.

Three mothers were prompted to start what has become ICS today, out of concern that their children were not receiving the best education possible. “Historically, Native families are very distrusting of schools because of abuses and trauma suffered across generations,” said Ms. Cornelius. During the 1800s and well into the 1900s, American Indian children across the country were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools, schools which had the intention of extinguishing and obliterating all native culture, including language, dress, and customs.

“It is so critical for us at ICS to demonstrate to parents that we are trustworthy, that we are working in the best interest of their children, that we have aspirations for their children, too,” says Ms. Cornelius. “FAST gives us a vehicle to build that trust and those relationships to be able to work together with families.” FAST at ICS is, as always, voluntary, and all families are encouraged to participate. Parents are supported to think differently about their role in the school—to think about themselves as partners in the education process, to work together with teachers and staff to support their children as needed. Furthermore, the adaptability of FAST gave ICS the flexibility to integrate culture into the program. Because FAST is 60% adaptable, the FAST Team was able to make sure the program was well-aligned with the mission and vision of the school, and tailor the program, where needed, to best serve the families at ICS.

In the 29 cycles run over the last 15 years, ICS has graduated nearly 300 families. The school typically has around 370 students in attendance at any given time, from K – 8, and the FAST Team has worked with both elementary and middle school-aged students, as well as infants and toddlers from the in-school playgroup. “Because we are a smaller school, and may only have around 40 students per grade, we really make an effort to serve as many families as possible,” says Ms. Cornelius. “Many of our students travel a long distance to get to us—coming from all across the city and the county—and we recognize that agreeing to participate in the program can be a big commitment. We do our best to remove as many barriers as we can for parents,” says Ms. Cornelius.

ICS provides bus rides, gas cards, and when needed, FAST Parent Partners offer rides to families. As families begin to form connections and build relationships during the course of the cycle, they can coordinate rides among themselves. “We just make it work. We plan for a longer Family Meal time, so that families have time to arrive and eat together,” says Ms. Cornelius. When FAST first started at ICS, the Team had concerns about how they were going to recruit families to participate and graduate from the program. The positive, inviting, and supportive nature of FAST spoke for itself. “FAST is an opportunity for families to eat together, to spend time together, to talk and connect. Families really enjoy this time,” says Ms. Cornelius.

During a Middle School cycle, one sixth grade student and her mother participated in the program. The student was very open and outspoken, but her mother was very shy and reserved. During the FAST Hellos, when each family introduces themselves to the group, with the parents leading the activity, the mother wanted to have her daughter do the introductions. “It was challenging to work with mom to understand why it was important for her to take charge of the activity, to lead the introductions and other activities as the head of the family. We were really asking her to put herself out there,” said Ms. Cornelius. The family graduated from the FAST Program, and even came back for a second cycle. “After her time with FAST, mom was so much more open and energetic. It was such a great transformation to witness,” said Ms. Cornelius. “FAST gives us the chance to meet parents where they are, to say ‘we are here to support you,’ and that makes such a big difference.”

As they continue to run FAST, the Team at ICS is always looking for different ways to infuse culture into the evening sessions. Culture is infused in all aspects of the school day, so it is important to the team to continue that work after school and in particular with the families. Smudging, for example, a traditional custom that is about clearing your mind and starting fresh, is often included in the Family Sessions. “We are always working to make sure that we are approaching it in an intentional and meaningful way, in a way that includes and informs parents,” says Ms. Cornelius. “The most important thing is that these experiences are not isolating but rather empowering to our parents and families.”

To find out more about the Indian Community School of Milwaukee, click here.