Rob Lairmore is the lead FAST quality control manager at Turning Points for Children in Philadelphia.

What does your job involve?

I meet with principals and teachers in several schools and work with them to get the word out about FAST. I also recruit team members (parents, school partners, agency partners, and other volunteers) and support them as they recruit families to attend the program. Before and during FAST implementation, I provide training and help maintain program fidelity at each of my (five to six) schools.

What are your takeaway lessons in working with these schools?

“One-Size-Fits-All” does not work in these schools because each school is unique. It is very important to listen to the people we are trying to partner with, to ask them to identify the barriers they see to family involvement and program implementation, and to ask their advice for the best ways to reach parents at their school. It’s great to have a big plan for a large-scale implementation, but we absolutely need to listen to locals’ insights about how to implement in their school. Along the same lines, we need time up front to research the neighborhood and school audience. If I had had access to the school sooner, been able to canvas the neighborhood and talk to more local folks earlier, I might have had a better idea of what each neighborhood school was dealing with and been more successful in identifying partners.

What would you suggest to people trying to launch family engagement programs like FAST in urban schools?

Planning time is really important. For example, to build teams, get familiar with each school, meet principals, etc., program folks ideally need a good year, to be better prepared to launch in the fall. Of course, you’ll have to deal with principal and teacher turnover, but at least you have a good chunk of groundwork done.

“Soft launches” make a lot of sense. Instead of starting in a lot of schools at once, choose five or ten. Then make time to study the neighborhoods, figure out the barriers, and roll out more incrementally, building up to the larger launch.

Also, consider doing a softer launch within schools. Instead of aiming for a 60 to 75 percent participation target right from the start (as we did), aim for the people who are ready now, and gain traction in the school.

I also think it’s a good idea to set initial attendance goals with the principal and school staff. We came in with lofty attendance goals. I can’t tell you the number of times principals told us that parents “never” come to afterschool events, or that they never get more than a handful in the door. Our goals were far higher than anything they had ever seen. As a result, our attendance numbers always looked bad – even when principals said they were moving in a positive direction based on previous history. Being realistic and celebrating step-by-step advances keeps everyone’s morale up, even the school leaders.

Final words?

When you see parents growing and changing and becoming the advocates their children need and deserve, you realize all the work is worth it.