Fifty-one schools in the state of Kansas are taking part of the Kansas Reading Roadmap (KRR) initiative, the goal of which is achieving reading proficiency for every student by grade three. Though united under a common goal, each participating Kansas school, including Chetopa Elementary in Chetopa, Kansas, has unique challenges.
Phyllis Ross, a retired teacher with 37 years’ experience, was hired as a Kansas Reading Roadmap Program Coordinator, and as a seasoned educator, understood that parent engagement would be key to the success of the state’s reading proficiency strategy, especially in light of Chetopa’s unique challenges.
“Chetopa Elementary is an 80 percent free-and-reduced-lunch school,” she says. “Many of our parents struggle with reading themselves.”
Ross joined Cynda Jarrett, an educator for 40 years, who has worked as Kansas Reading Roadmap’s title teacher in Chetopa Elementary since the program began. Both have been key figures in the implementation of FAST, a research-backed parent engagement program provided by education non-profit Families & Schools Together, Inc., and a crucial element to the success of Kansas Reading Roadmap at Chetopa Elementary.
“FAST empowers parents with knowledge and understanding,” Jarrett says. “The more they understand how important reading is to the success of their child, the more supportive and encouraging they are, and the more they create reading opportunities for their children at home.”
Uniting under a Common Goal
Chetopa Elementary hosts Literacy Nights as part of their parent outreach strategy. It’s an opportunity to make a positive impression on families, and for many parents, it is their first exposure to FAST.
“Literacy Night is very important for parents,” says Ross. “Through the event and exposure to FAST, parents who say they haven’t had good experiences with schools are given an opportunity to get to know us and get comfortable with us.” According to Ross, parent support makes a positive difference in children’s attitudes, and in their ability to achieve academically.
“It gives parents a new level of confidence. They feel more like a partner. It has broken down barriers, and parents feel more comfortable with us,” Ross says.
“It unites all of us under a common goal,” she added.
Jarrett recalls one family in particular who experienced a dramatic turnaround through FAST. “We had one father who was very angry, and a lot of that came from poor experiences with schools,” she says. But he was dedicated to seeing the FAST program through to the end for the sake of his family, and on many nights they would walk from their family’s home across town to attend meetings. Despite perceiving him as “angry,” Jarrett notes that the father’s attitude was mitigated by his love for his children.
“He always championed his kids coming to school, even though he had trust issues, and didn’t want anything to do with us,” she says.
Ross and Jarrett noted that they gradually began to see a softer side, and his devotion to his children began to show through his participation in FAST. He has been through two cycles of FAST, each with different children, and remains a committed advocate of the program.
Ross identified a mother who seemed discouraged by her role in helping her daughter learn, telling one 2nd grade teacher that her child wasn’t interested in reading and wouldn’t do the work. After participating in FAST, that same child is showing progress. “Put a book in her hands and she’s grinning,” Ross says. “The mother shows up frequently and is very excited about the new books. The program has developed a love of reading in her daughter.”
A New Community
FAST has helped Chetopa Elementary restore the foundational relationship between families and the school necessary for the success of the Kansas Reading Roadmap project. Through the program’s activities like “Kids Time,” “Buddy Time” and others, the program’s participants managed to build the bedrock for a support network with parents they normally might not have an opportunity to meet. Teachers joined in as well, aiding in the creation of a holistic, wrap-around parental support network at Chetopa.
That support network has grown beyond the FAST program, as well. “We help parents buy school supplies and always send them Christmas gifts,” says Jarrett. “Parents are so grateful; some have fixed meals for us.” According to Jarrett, the sense of community unity achieved by inviting parents into the process of educating their children and empowering them has been humbling for Kansas Reading Roadmap organizers. “The goodness that comes out of FAST is passed on,” she says.
The community that has grown around FAST has attracted the attention of local leaders, including Mayor Ron Wood. He has presented at two FAST graduations and his wife is a member of the FAST Team.
“FAST Graduation is a wonderful experience,” says Jarrett. “The affirmations are awesome.”
Parent engagement through FAST quickly became an essential piece of the Kansas Reading Roadmap strategy at Chetopa, though both Ross and Jarrett admitted they underestimated the potential impact of the program … at first.
“When I first went to training and they told us what we were going to do with FAST, I felt overwhelmed,” she recalls. “I didn’t know how I was going to manage what they were asking us to do. But we had a wonderful FAST Trainer, Pat Bundy, and it has been wonderful for our school and community.”
“It’s an outstanding program and I’m so glad I’m involved in it,” she says.
“If I wanted to sum up FAST, I’d say it changes parent attitudes,” Jarrett adds. “It definitely changes the family, and when the family is stronger, and united, they’re more committed to helping the child.”
“It’s an outstanding program,” she says.
Though they lost one family to a move, Ross says that after five cycles of FAST, they haven’t seen a single family drop out. “Parents say, ‘we don’t want to miss it,’ “Ross says. “Everyone wants to graduate.”