Power of the Plan: Family Engagement

December 15, 2015

Power of the Plan: Family Engagement

School dinners give parents a chance to connect with their kids – and each other

By Justin Glanville     Photos by Julia Van Wagenen

It’s family dinner night at Fullerton School of Academics in Slavic Village, and Alonzo Clark stands guard as eager young hands reach for oatmeal cream pies and strawberry danishes.

“Only one, guys,” he tells two little girls. Their disappointment lessens when he hands each a glass of orange Kool-Aid.

They streak off to join their families, sitting at tables in the school’s gymnasium.

Clark, who oversees Fullerton’s planning center for off-task students (click for related story), is one of several Fullerton staff who help run the school’s weekly Families and Schools Together (FAST) dinners.

Started by a national non-profit of the same name, the dinners are meant to strengthen family relationships and keep parents informed about their children’s education. They provide kids with healthy meals – families take turns cooking each week – and a chance to play basketball, jump rope or make crafts.

Dinner isn’t the norm at public schools, but Fullerton is a Community Wraparound School, one of 25 in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District with extra resources dedicated to improving student performance and the overall culture of learning.

“It’s basically designed to empower parents to continue to care for their kids, because without parents we don’t have anything,” says Sharra Wimberly, who coordinates services and activities at Fullerton.

Strong family support is especially important in a school like Fullerton. It’s in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood, where nearly half the children live in poverty and about 25 percent of adults are jobless, according to the 2010 Census. Those problems get in the way of students’ ability to attend school and succeed academically.

Productive play

On a recent Wednesday night, a few boys shoot baskets at one end of the gym while two girls jump rope. Six families – two of the usual eight have stayed home due to illness – eat plates of chicken alfredo, green salad and garlic bread at tables covered in blue paper, with crayons and markers provided for doodling.

Freddie Buford, grandfather of first-grader Kyla Buford, draws a red stop sign on his table.

“I’m teaching my little one here about shapes,” he says, pointing to Kyla’s three-year-old sister.

Buford is aware of Fullerton’s reputation as one of the district’s most troubled schools. It’s long suffered from a range of problems ranging from poor attendance to widespread misbehavior. (click for related story).

But Kyla started attending after the school’s Wraparound designation, and he says she’s thriving.

“Whenever I come here, what I see is happy kids,” he says. “To me, that says the teachers care.”

A second chance

Kathy Tookes says she almost gave up on Fullerton. She has three students there, ranging in age from kindergarten to fifth grade, and three more who’ve attended Fullerton in the past.

By last year, she says, “I’d had it. Students were getting suspended, teachers were cursing at kids and vice versa – it was out of control. I was going to take them all out, send them anywhere else.”

That was Fullerton’s first year as a Community Wraparound School, just as revised academic programs, student-faculty lunches and new teachers were coming in. Her older daughter’s teacher persuaded her to be patient.

“She said, ‘give me one more year, I’ll be able to focus on her better,’” Tookes remembers.

So far, Tookes feels that promise has been kept. Not only are her kids doing better academically, Tookes likes how her youngest daughter’s kindergarten teacher, for example, uses computers to build digital literacy.

After dinner, Wimberly leads families in a series of songs.

“We learn at school, we learn at home and then we learn together,” the families chant, some standing and clapping along.

An adult outlet

After clearing the dishes away, the adults split off from the children.

They follow Wimberly to a circle of chairs and break into pairs. Each person has seven uninterrupted minutes to talk to his or her partner.

Deeply personal, poignant monologues are laced with laughter. One woman worries for the safety of her teenage daughter, who’s been staying out late at night. Another isn’t sure she’s physically or emotionally ready for the new baby her husband wants.

Wimberly says parents can be reluctant to share without interruption. They’re used to having two-way conversations.

“But eventually you see the walls breaking down,” she says. “This is the only time a lot of them get adult interactions, apart from working.”

“It’s their time. They need that to keep from getting overwhelmed and to feel supported.”