Partners for Education Improves Educational Outcomes in Rural Communities

September 25, 2017

“FAST helps parents become leaders in their home so that they can become leaders in the school as well.” – Grace McKenzie, Associate Director of Family Partnership at Partners for Education

Founded in 1995 by Dreama Gentry, Partners for Education at Berea College works to improve educational outcomes for nearly 40,000 young people, and their families across 54 counties in the Appalachian region of Kentucky. Beyond supporting a wide range of programs, including Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), Upward Bound Math & Science, and several AmeriCorps programs, Partners for Education recognizes the central role families play in their children’s lives. Since 2011, FAST® has been a critical piece of the work it does.

Partners for Education was the only rural grantee among the first five Promise Neighborhoods funded by the Obama administration in 2011; as such, it was the recipient of grant funds to “provide resources and support that young people need to succeed, while transforming distressed neighborhoods into communities of opportunity.” At the same time, the organization also received two GEAR UP grants, allowing it to offer a wider range of programs, including FAST. From there, growth was rapid. Some of the Family Engagement Specialists and Certified FAST® Trainers had a quick, immersive introduction to FAST.

Grace McKenzie, Associate Director of Family Partnership and Certified FAST Trainer was, at the time, working as a College Coach, preparing high schoolers in Jackson County, Kentucky for college. She was approached to be a part of the FAST Program at the school, and immediately began recruiting students and families to participate. Andrea McKeehan, Family Training Coordinator and Certified FAST Trainer said, “Within two weeks of being hired, I was forming a FAST Team as the team lead and a Community Partner. I was new to the program, but we had a Certified FAST Trainer come train our team and ended up graduating 12 families that first cycle.”

It was clear from the beginning that the program was highly effective, and would become a vital component of the work Partners for Education was doing in the community. “I have been in the social work field for the last 17 years. I have always worked with families, but I had never implemented a structured program before. It was amazing to watch relationships grow among families, schools, and the community,” said Angela Hampton, Family Engagement Specialist and Certified FAST Trainer. Across sites, 67 percent of parents who participate in FAST report a better relationship with their child, 70 percent report improvement in social relationships, and 53 percent say they are more involved in their children’s education.

FAST not only provides crucial support to the services that Partners for Education offers to students and their families, but actually amplifies the benefits of these programs. “At McKee Elementary, when families participated in FAST, we saw a nearly 33 percent increase in the amount of time spent on a reading intervention,” said Rochelle Garrett, Family Partnership Director at Partners for Education and Certified FAST Trainer. “Among Berea Promise Neighborhood high school graduates, those who had participated in 5 or more hours of family engagement programming (including FAST) were 20 percent more likely to enroll in college than their peers.”

With the infusion of multiple grants, Partners for Education currently has 7 Certified FAST Trainers who support FAST Teams across southeastern Kentucky. Since starting in 2011 with one FAST High School level cycle at Jackson County High School, Partners for Education has run over 60 cycles at 39 schools and graduated nearly 450 families.

FAST has also made an impact across the grades. One-to-One Time, a FAST component in middle and high school, empowers youth to engage in conversations with parents about a topic selected by the youth. “When teenagers are given control of the topic, they talk about real things. The caliber of conversation is much higher, and you really see two-sided, dynamic conversation between teens and their parents. These deeper conversations carry over to their home life, too,” said McKenzie.  “It’s wonderful to see these teens become leaders,” added Hampton. Research from Michael Resnick at the University of Minnesota demonstrated that positive parent/family connections, and perceived positive school connections helped reduce youth violence, delinquency, substance abuse, and school dropout.

Furthermore, FAST supports parents. “The emphasis on parent empowerment is what stands out to me about FAST. There is no other program that I know about that focuses as much on parent empowerment,” said McKeehan. FAST Team Members adhere to the tenet, “Never do for a parent what a parent can do for themselves,” and throughout the program, support parents to feel confident as the leader of their family unit. “We see family dynamics change, particularly around control, for the teenagers” said McKenzie. “The hierarchy changes and the parents bond with their child by developing a partnership based on mutual respect.”

Working in rural counties means there are often hurdles, like transportation, to reaching all families in a particular community. In response to these challenges, the team at Partners for Education gets creative—working with local churches or other community organizations to provide transportation, permitting kids/youth to stay at school until FAST begins, coordinating carpools among families, and recruiting team members to help with rides. Once parents begin to form connections through FAST, they are able to rely on these social networks to arrange rides among the group. As parents continue to build their networks, these social and tangible supports continue to grow.

When a single mom and her two daughters moved from Texas to their new community in Kentucky, they joined the FAST Program at their school. “They had a really hard time getting to know people before FAST,” said Hampton. “But through the program, they were able to form friendships. The mom got a job through a connection made at FAST, and the two daughters got involved in school sports and other activities.”

For more information about how you can bring FAST to your community, please visit our website at or contact us at 888.629.2481.