Removing obstacles so kids can learn: Family Advocacy Support Teams at Rocky Mountain Prep

Editor’s note: This article was written by Daniella Gutierrez, Senior Manager of Operations & Family Liaison at Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside.

Daniella Gutierrez

A couple years ago, our faculty at Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside concluded at attendance meetings that the reasons for missed school were frequently due to families struggling to meet basic needs. It was often beyond the ability and resources of parents and caregivers to address, let alone for the classroom teacher who wanted to support every learner to make sure basic needs were being met.

We asked each other, ‘how can we make sure students are not coming to school hungry, worried about where they will sleep, or without the corrective eyewear they may need? How can we help provide kids and their families with the stability at home to be physically, emotionally and mentally present to learn?’

Our efforts to connect families to resources, and to help our scholars by meeting basic needs in the fastest manner possible gave rise to the Family Advocacy Support Team (FAST). Referrals to the FAST team are designed to be simple; a classroom teacher, lunchroom, custodial, or front office staff member can refer a student for support on a Google survey form. The key is identifying needs and acting quickly to provide solutions. The FAST team is made up of seven members: a family liaison, social worker, psychologist, counselor, nurse, general education teacher and a special education teacher.

Referrals are reviewed weekly and tracked until completion, with notifications provided automatically when the need is addressed or remains unmet past 14 days. At Creekside alone, we proudly served 74 families during the holiday season and an additional 84 during the school year, totaling 158 families that had a basic need met so that their scholar(s) could come to school and learn. 

Anonymity is also important. We never want families to feel ashamed as they navigate support. Everyone struggles, and I’m pleased that one of the best parts of the FAST program is the way it teaches families to feel more empowered. They learn how to navigate systems and advocate for what they need to support their children’s academic journey.

Rocky Mountain Prep (RMP) has now expanded FAST across our network of four schools. While staff stepped up to fundraise to get the program off the ground, we now have a pool of emergency funds – and that’s been a game-changer. It enables us to keep families stable until we’re able to connect them to resources.

We work hard to prevent families struggling with rent from being evicted. We help them understand their rights, pay attention to moratoriums, and also work with donors and community resources as is possible to support families financially. It makes a world of difference when a child whose family can no longer afford Denver’s skyrocketing cost of living is able to stay in housing that enables them to remain a part of our school community.

Many RMP families choose to stay with us long after they’ve been priced out of nearby housing. This makes transportation one of the most common challenges the FAST team addresses – it is also one of the hardest to solve at the elementary level. You can’t give 3-to-10-year-olds a bus pass.

We have parents who drive an hour each way to get their children to school. We’ve worked with SchoolPool to help organize parents around ride-sharing. We also connect parents to a skilled mechanic who ‘understands the struggle’ and is willing to go to family homes for repairs. We support families with short-term Lyft and Uber rides, and we use our non-profit discount to give families access to public transit.

FAST offers to pay groceries for a month so a family can pay to get their car’s engine in working order, or afford new tires. We still don’t have a long-term solution to address our families’ transportation challenges but we hope to develop one.

Other challenges the FAST team addresses involve covering family expenses for food, utilities, immigration support, and other urgent costs essential for students to continue their learning. Developing partnerships with community organizations has helped us to meet a wide variety of needs.

We’re excited to see the ways in which funds from the American Rescue Plan Act can help us address the disruptions in learning brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. Our FAST budget will grow, and we’re looking at how we can further empower our families to access the community’s resources. We want this funding to help us work together to ensure we’re closing academic gaps and living out our mission of every scholar reaching their full potential.

A mom approached me recently and said, “I’ve never had a school help me in this way.” It filled my heart as a mother who has struggled myself to see our work provide our scholars with the support they need to succeed. My hope is that all schools will have programs like FAST, so every student receives the high-quality education they deserve.