This after-school program in Flint targets parents, too

FLINT, Michigan — School employees are tasked with creating a safe learning atmosphere for students, but the environment at school can be impacted by occurrences outside of the school walls and normal school hours.

Flint Community Schools is hoping a new parent and family engagement program will help build relationships and dialogue among parents, students, and school officials.

“The FAST program has been really successful and impactful for our families who have participated,” said Quenna Brown, family engagement facilitator at Flint Community Schools. “It helps strengthen bonds and opens up communication.”

FAST -- Families And Schools Together -- is a national 8-week program founded in 1988 and used in schools nationwide. Its goals include helping children succeed in school by building strong support systems at home by empowering parents and providing the necessary tools to be engaged in their children’s education.

Flint Schools piloted the program last year. This year, it is being used in five elementary schools — Neithercut, Doyle-Ryder, Holmes STEM Academy, Brownell, and Freeman. Next year, it will expand to eight school buildings. 

Participating families meet weekly during an 8-week session. A healthy dinner is served — with the children serving their parents — and there are several interactive activities aimed at children and parents individually and collectively. For a portion of each session, parents and children are separated: Children play and participate in activities to give parents time to ask questions or raise concerns on a range of topics. 

“It takes a village to raise a child,” said  Christopher Ochodnicky, principal at Neithercut Elementary. “The whole idea is for parents to get to know one another and get a chance to know each other’s kids. It gives more eyes to pay attention to what is going on here at the school and outside of the school to make sure everyone is behaving and taking care of their studies.”

Topics of each session vary, but include information on bullying, how to manage the technology use of children, nutrition needs, emotional well-being, and more. After dinner and sing-alongs, children are taken into a separate classroom to work with volunteers and staff on activities while parents participate in the parent-themed session. There are also opportunities during each session for parents with multiple children to get one-on-one time with just one child at a time. The sessions close with all of the families brought back together and there is a gift basket given away each week.

“The kids get excited about the activities and playing, but the parents have been really excited and look forward to coming each week,” Ochodnicky said. “The parents circle allows them the chance to let their hair down and speak freely about any concerns they have.”

Each participating school will do two 8-week sessions this school year. They’ve been so popular that four sessions are planned for next year.

“We started with just one room to house the program and now we’re up to two,” Brown said. “More people have been asking to sign up.”

The goal is simply to build strong parent-child relationships throughout the district, and the participation in the FAST program is a recognition that those relationships have to be built outside of school. 

“It’s a whole child approach,” Ochodnicky said. “We want to pay attention to not just the education needs, but the nutrition needs, safety concerns, parental concerns. Not every parent understands how to deal with their child being bullied or their child bullying somebody else, so it gives us an opportunity as a school to bring families in and work with them to help them solve some of those problems together with us and work as a team and make sure the needs of the children are being met.”

Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.