Kansas Reading Roadmap: FAST at Onaga Elementary

Whether in a public, private or home school environment, community is at the heart of education and plays a transformative role in the lives of students. While teachers play an integral role in leading a student to academic success, parents are the driving force that continually support and encourage their children to succeed beyond the classroom. Research shows that when the whole family is involved, teachers gain an essential partner in learning and students achieve greater academic and personal success.

But how do schools empower parents to become involved with their child’s education? Schools frequently struggle to get busy parents to visit their classroom or attend school events. The community also plays a role as well; families in rural or low-income areas often don’t have the opportunities or time to build trusting, mutual relationships with educators, preventing them from becoming partners in learning.

Thus, there is an unprecedented need for programs that work to strengthen school bonds by involving educators and parents to foster a supportive and productive environment for students. The nonprofit, Families and Schools Together, Inc. provides FAST, an evidence-based program that has demonstrated success in empowering parents and communities and developing strong community-school partnerships for 27 years.

FAST in Action

Becky Nider is a Kansas Reading Roadmap (KRR) Program Manager and FAST Team Member at Onaga Elementary School in Kansas. She is currently in her second year of working with Kansas Reading Roadmap and FAST, and through her previous experience as a paraprofessional, she has seen firsthand how the power of parent involvement can change a child’s educational experience and foster improved relationships between schools, students and families.

“FAST is empowering parents and showing how their decisions affect their children,” Nider said. “We’re helping them be supportive throughout the entire academic year and unite each parent under one common goal – helping their children succeed in and out of school.”

Empower Every Parent

Parents are often hesitant to visit their child’s school regularly to meet with teachers, attend events, or simply interact with other parents. Many feel anxiety, and fear they won’t fit in with educators and other parents. FAST and the Kansas Reading Roadmap have created a venue that helps to allay these fears by encouraging parent inclusion and empowerment.

“FAST is the piece of our initiative that enables parents to become more involved and it gives them the context they need to engage with their child’s education and school,” Nider said. “Parents are the first teacher; we’re helping them see what’s happening inside the classroom while also helping them understand what the homework is and why it’s important to complete.”

Nider shared an anecdote about one parent who showed up on the first night the FAST Program was launched. Distracted and disengaged, she paid little attention to what was happening around her and was reluctant to participate. However, by week eight and the last night of FAST, that same parent was fully engaged and participating with others. She experienced one of the most dramatic turnarounds in the program, and according to Nider, is now a testament to the power of parent engagement.

“Throughout the program, this mom saw how other families were bonding and made a decision to participate to see what would happen. Her kids saw that she was having fun and followed suit,” Nider said. “When she became active, she saw how she could be more involved, and FAST helped her realize the positive step she was taking for her kids.”

Nider went on to share that the same parent now participates as part of a FAST Parent Panel, the role of which is to talk to families and encourage them to commit to the FAST Program and see it through in order to experience its benefits for their families. Furthermore, as part of the Kansas Reading Roadmap project, the parent shared that while she has few resources to help her children academically, she now knows how to reach out to teachers to ask about the homework and for best ways to assist her children in completing their work. She’s also built supportive relationships in the school due to her involvement in the program.

Build a Community

A sense of community is integral to building strong relationships among families and also contributes to the overall morale and success of an entire group. Families unite to achieve similar goals and help to connect each other to local resources. The relationships built during the FAST Program extend far beyond the reaches of the classroom and ultimately create a tight-knit community working to improve their lives and their futures.

“It’s about peers helping peers, and parents feel like they’re in a safe and inviting place to share what is happening at home with other families who may be experiencing something similar,” Nider said. “They’re connected by the school and helping their children achieve academic success, but at the end of the day it’s a community of people willing to help their neighbor in any way they can.”

Each FAST Team includes team members with individualized roles that that establish a supportive web for families involved. The community representatives help with resources and speak with participating families in parent group sessions. Parents share their experiences and build connections and friendships during the sessions; from these connections, parents are able to help each other out in times of need. Nider shared that she has seen parents help each other navigate the uncertainties of unemployment, eviction and other financial difficulties. They have created an environment of mutual support, and seek to support each other in every way possible.

“Parents don’t want to stop being active after the program ends,” Nider said. “We’re seeing that once a month parents continue to get together and talk to other past and new FAST families. It’s all about networking for each family and that shows how well the FAST program is working to bring the community together.”