RFF Shout Out: Family Engagement Lab

15 Dec, 2021

RFF Shout Out: Family Engagement Lab

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Image courtesy of Family Engagement Lab

Family Engagement Lab ignites the potential in millions of families to support their child’s learning with FASTalk (Families and Schools Talk) their premier engagement tool. FASTalk promotes equity and builds partnerships between teachers and historically underserved families by sharing accessible, impactful, and engaging, at-home learning activities via text messages in each family’s home language. Currently available in over 100 languages, FASTalk gives families a glimpse of what’s happening in the classroom through text messages, and breaks down language barriers between schools and families. Teachers at participating schools send home activities aligned with curriculum taught in their classrooms using an automated system, and the literacy gains for participating students are truly incredible!

When asked why Family Engagement Lab was created, Co-Founder and CEO Vidya Sundaram says, “We are afforded a unique opportunity to a free public education system in the US. The challenge is the disparity in educational opportunities and access to that potential… Schools often twist [linguistic diversity] into something that is seen as a hindrance. Linguistic diversity should be held up, celebrated, and seen as something that helps students, not holds them back.” Focus groups held with families surfaced that parents whose primary language is not English are often alienated due to language barriers and lack of access to interpreters. Sundaram’s experience at the intersection of family engagement, PK-12 education, and technology and media, has demonstrated that families who are familiar with navigating the education system are able to access and advocate for opportunities for their children. Family Engagement Lab’s mission is to build the bridges that can help activate the power within families to support student learning, especially for those who are often marginalized by our education system. 

Image courtesy of Family Engagement Lab.

Speaking to how the past year and a half has presented an opportunity for deeper engagement with families, Sundaram believes that schools have had an A-Ha! moment, with so many of them seeing family engagement as a priority, and that when done well, can support student success and make teachers’ jobs easier. Sundaram says, “We have an important opportunity now to build closer relationships with families… It’s so important to dispel the myth that when you engage families, the only families who would participate are those who are already doing supplemental activities at home with their students anyway. That is a devastating myth because it prevents schools from investing in effective solutions that support student outcomes. By sending the texts to everyone [through FASTalk], all parents are equipped with insight into what their child’s learning, and how to support at home, helping those who are furthest behind catch up.”  FASTalk is able to help build those relationships and engages parents in a way that removes stress from teachers, creating space to spend more time focusing on the joy of teaching.

Most recently, Family Engagement Lab has partnered with districts during the adoption of curriculum and found that the use of FASTalk in conjunction with the curriculum rollout has led to accelerated gains for students who were furthest behind their peers. Specifically, EL Educations ELA curriculum is one that Family Engagement Lab has deep experience in working with districts during early adoption phases. Sundaram stresses that connecting family engagement to curriculum adoption is incredibly helpful in smoothing the pathway to make sure the curriculum is effective in the community. 

Image courtesy of Family Engagement Lab.

If Family Engagement Lab could have 3 wishes granted today they would wish for:

  • Every child to have the opportunity to get a quality education that includes their families and educators working hand in hand 
  • All children will have food, housing, health, and environmental security
  • All teachers are supported and compensated in ways that allow them to focus on student learning.

Looking ahead, Family Engagement Lab is continuing to host focus groups and listening sessions to help shape their suite of services, and would love to have local families or educators participate. Follow Family Engagement Lab on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and subscribe to their monthly newsletter that features best practices, research, and tools focused on a specific topic in family engagement. 

Check out these articles written by Family Engagement Lab Co-Founder and Chief Impact Officer Elisabeth O’Bryon:

Full studies on learning gains can be found on Family Engagement Lab’s website:

Written and edited by Bonnie Look and Kate Ray.

Kate Ray joined the RFF team in 2019. Prior to joining the Foundation, Kate spent two years as a middle-school science teacher, first in Fort Worth, Texas, and most recently in Oakland with Aspire Public Schools. Kate’s favorite childhood book was Matilda by Roald Dahl. Her hope for Oakland students is that each will be provided with the tools and support they need to develop and pursue their passions.
Bonnie Look joined the RFF team in 2017. She designs and coordinates the implementation of the Foundation’s strategic communications, program operations, grants management and evaluation. Bonnie’s favorite childhood book was The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Her hope for Oakland students if for each to realize their potential, to feel valued and loved, and have a hunger for continuous learning in school and beyond.