GARY — Tennille Foster knows Gary schools. She’s been involved with the district since she saw the need more than 18 years ago for a crossing guard at her daughter’s school.
She’s been a parental advocate for years and has been a constant through the frequent changes that have rocked Gary schools in the last several years.
“In Gary we’ve had some hard times and we’ve had some shakiness — what districts don’t struggle? But, if we come together as a community …” Foster said, trailing off to help a parent at last week's West Side Leadership Academy student orientation.
Now, Foster leads the Gary Community School Corp.’s Family and Community Engagement, or FACE, team — a network of district employees stationed in each Gary building to provide support services to Gary administrators and families.
The group makes itself visible at community events, like back-to-school orientations and school open houses, encouraging parents to join volunteer groups, communicate with administrators and take an active role in their students’ education.
Many of the FACE liaisons, a program first started as a group of volunteer parent assistants, are parents themselves. The district’s former Title I director formalized the program about four years ago, Foster said, and she’s decided to continue it, proving wrap-around services for families including Gary’s foster care, special education and homeless populations, without judgment.
“We’ve been in the office helping the secretaries, in the lunchroom helping the matrons, we’ve been crossing guards,” Foster said. “We do a lot — we’re that support as needed.”
FACE parent centers are located in each Gary school and are each staffed with one or more FACE liaisons who provide resources for student registration, academic services and family relationship building.
Gary parents, who themselves might be continuing their own education, can even use the FACE centers do academic work while their kids are in class at a Gary school.
FACE liaisons also serve as a mediator between parents and administrators.
LeBarron Burton, an involved parent with four children in the Gary schools system, said he turned to the FACE team when he heard his students’ Mandarin language program may be discontinued after the state’s 2017 takeover of the financially challenged district.
Burton said through the FACE program, he reached out to Gary administration, and his children are now taking advantage of Mandarin classes this summer.
“Through the FACE program, that was one of my main complaints,” Burton said. “And, things get done. So far, things have been pretty good.”
The FACE program will continue to play an important intermediary role serving both parents and administrators as all but one Gary school will see a new principal this school year, Foster said.
New principals include; Othiniel Mahone at West Side Leadership Academy, Kwalfle Scott-Bradley at the new Bailly Middle School, Antoinette Dixon at Gary Middle School, Demetrius Bunch at Banneker Elementary at Marquette, Linda Rugg at Beveridge Elementary, Sharmayne McKinley at Frankie McCullough Academy, Linda Gholston at Williams Elementary and Angela Grayson at Bethune Early Childhood Development Center.
Brandi Herrod will continue in her role as Glen Park Academy in the new school year.
One of those new building leaders — West Side Principal Othiniel Mahone, a Wirt-Emerson grad — joins the Gary district from John Marshall High School in Chicago. He said FACE will play an important role in his goal to increase parental engagement this school year.
“It’s important for the parents to be able to walk the building — to be around to see what’s going on in the building — because they’re our ambassadors for future students,” Mahone said. “Who else can tell you how great a school is than other parents?”
Foster said her goal this August is to work with Gary parents to hear their interests and need to help develop a plan for workshops and leadership training throughout the school year.
“I want people, when they come in touch or in contact with a FACE liaison, I want them to feel the passion,” Foster said “I want them to feel the love we have for them and I want them to know there’s nothing we won’t do to help them.”