Ethan is our Community Relations Coordinator where he works with donors and families alike. He oversees our two largest annual community events, the Back 2 School Bash in the fall and the Literacy Carnival in the spring.
A buzzword within educational circles in recent years has been the term “family engagement.” Educators are beginning to better understand the need to engage families as a way to help their students succeed in the classroom. Consider the fact that a student in a program like Fortress may spend 50 hours a week in a classroom setting gaining new academic and social skills. But even with such a high number of hours in that type of setting, students will spend over TWICE (118 hours) as many hours in a home environment as they do in the classroom. Based on the amount of time spent in each environment, it is vital that students have a constructive environment in the home, that advocates for positive learning and growth, in order to reach their full potential.
At Fortress we began to recognize the need to better engage the families that we serve about 3 years ago. Prior to that point, our programs had been very successful at building on students’ academic and social skills through our math and literacy lab programs, but we began to realize that even greater strides could be made if our families became more invested in their children’s success in the programs. Studies show that regardless of family income or background, students with involved parents are more likely to:
- Earn higher grades and test scores, and enroll in higher level programs
- Attend school regularly
- Have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school
- Graduate and go on to post secondary education
With all this information in mind, we started the EQUIP parent engagement program in August of 2013 with funding and support from the Junior League of Fort Worth. The program provides regular activities and classes that are designed to encourage, engage and empower our parents to be more intentional in the academic and social development of their children. Families participate in bi-annual parent conferences, monthly family events, parenting classes and a parent support group. Since we do not charge for our programs, we require that our families participate in 15 hours of these activities per year in order to enroll students the following year. Here are just a few examples of the great things that have happened because of this program in the last few years:
In the 2014-2015 school year, we offered 98 hours of parenting activities to our families and they responded by logging a total of 838 total hours! This resulted in over 90% of our families exceeding the 15 hour requirement to be eligible to reenroll students the following year. In the end-of-year survey that our families completed, one of the feedback comments we received said, “They helped us thru all the grief and problems we had last year” while another parent said, “They (Fortress) show us an example of how to take care of and treat our children as well as resolve family conflicts.”
Towards the end of summer 2015, one of our volunteers came to us with a couple of twin beds that they wanted to give away to someone who could use them. They asked if anyone at Fortress would be in a position to take advantage of the beds. Thanks to the strong relationships we built with the families throughout the school year, we knew of one family in particular that was about to move and had very little furniture for their new apartment. Kaylyn and Jayla, the two girls that were enrolled in our programs, had been sleeping on a mattress on the floor and were going to have the same situation in the new place. The opportunity to meet the need of these students by offering the family two twin beds could not have happened without the increased engagement between the family and Fortress.
So far in 2015-2016, we have hosted two of our largest family events ever! The Fortress Back 2 School Bash on August 21 was attended by 200+ and allowed students and families to prepare for the school year by receiving school supplies and backpacks for completing fun activities in a carnival setting. Some of the favorite event activities were the dunk tank where students could dunk a favorite staff member and the Fortress staff scavenger hunt where families had to use the provided clues to find each staff member on their card. On October 30, we hosted our first ever Trunk or Treat event. Despite weather conditions that forced the event indoors, 190 students and families attended! Volunteers decorated themed tables throughout the building and dressed up to hand candy out to all of the trick or treaters. We saw some great costumes and are super excited for how the event will grow in the coming years!
Thanks to some of the conversations we have had in the last couple of years with our families, we became aware that several of our families struggle to put a full Thanksgiving meal on the table. Last year we decided to see if we could do something about it. We rallied some of our donors and volunteers to help us create Thanksgiving boxes that could go home with each of our families. This year we were able to send home a full meal complete with a turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries, green beans, sweet potatoes, rolls, stuffing, and peach cobbler to each of the 60 families that we serve. Our families were so appreciative and thankful to have a full meal that they could prepare and eat with their families on the special day.
We also have seen an increase in the amount of social and emotional growth from our families through the EQUIP program. Over the course of the last couple of years we have been able to connect some parents and families dealing with difficult situations to counseling services related to domestic abuse, parenting strategies and grief. Through some outside connections to the Parenting Center and Legacy Church of Christ, we always stand ready to refer any of our families to services that go beyond the scope of what we can offer. The parent support group, which this year is focused on equipping parents with the tools to help them be able to respond to their children’s needs, is another way that we have been able to listen to our parents needs and be a support system for their families.
We have already seen so much success in the EQUIP program in the first two and a half years and we know it will only continue to grow from here! Please consider making it possible to EQUIP one of our families this year by donating the $48.61 a month that it costs to implement the program for one family (or $583.32 for a year). Our families are counting on Fortress and Fortress is counting on you!