Auer Avenue is located in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Milwaukee. It is one of the most segregated areas in one of America’s most segregated cities where parents all too often have a lack of trust and hope and feeling of safety in their community.

But change is coming as people in that neighborhood have been rallying and coming together the last few years to improve the community and school. The process is being helped along by a Madison-based nonprofit, Families and Schools Together Inc.(FAST), that helps children thrive by building stronger, more supportive relationships at home.

“Built on evidence-based practices, the FAST program improves child behavior, emotional well-being and academic performance while building social capital among families, schools and communities,” Carol Goedken, CEO and executive director of FAST, tells Madison365.

FAST recently hosted the Auer Avenue FAST Graduation ceremony which was the biggest group of families yet to complete the FAST parent engagement program. Auer Avenue Elementary School sits at the heart of one of Milwaukee’s toughest neighborhoods, but through extensive community support, teachers, students and parents found themselves celebrating some positive healing and community building.

Carol Goedken, CEO and executive director of FAST
Carol Goedken, CEO and executive director of FAST

“Auer Avenue Elementary School serves primarily low-income African-American families and the neighborhood has been deeply impacted by gun violence, foreclosures and other symptoms of poverty,” Goedken says. “The school itself has been at risk of being re-configured into a charter school, and that’s when parents, school staff and community leaders rallied together and invested their time and energy into saving the school and the neighborhood.”

The FAST Program constitutes weekly sessions and activities that build cohesiveness and provide opportunities for parents to strengthen their role in the family. Sessions are led by a team whose purpose is to empower parents and connect families to their school and greater community. Many FAST teams are composed of former graduates of the program.

FAST has been a part of a broader community engagement initiative since early 2014, and Auer Avenue has completed 5 eight-week cycles of the program since then. “Eighty percent of the families who attended FAST have stayed with us or graduated from the program. The recent FAST Graduation celebrated the families who made a weekly commitment to attend FAST and strengthen family and community relationships,” Goedken says. “We know this leads to healthier families and helps to create a network of community leaders and changemakers. Real community change never happens overnight, but we and our non-profit partners in the area have seen substantial improvement over the past year, which has been very encouraging. This community is starting the process of healing, and we’re honored to be a part of that.”

fastFAST has been working with Milwaukee-based non-profit SET Ministry to improve the Auer Avenue neighborhood from the inside out. “SET Ministry has been a wonderful and dedicated partner in providing services to children and families, and a valued partner for Families and Schools Together, Inc,” Goedken says. “Through funding from the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (WI DCF), they implement FAST in an effort to bring parents and the school together to build a positive, healthy community where parents and students are more engaged in their child’s school.”

One of the outcomes of bringing FAST to Auer Avenue was the creation of a parent council that brings a voice to parents and supports a culture of parent advocacy. “Parents are now promoting school policies that support health and well-being for their own children,” Goedken says. “The program is also self-sustaining with many former FAST Parent Graduates leading the parent council, and new FAST teams who are continuing to empower even more parents and cultivate parent leadership within the community.”

How does FAST plan on building on the initial successes of Auer Avenue?

“At Auer Avenue, we look forward to seeing continued growth each time we offer FAST, which means serving more children and parents, building stronger bonds and relationships, and regaining trust in the community,” says Goedken. “The program at Auer is one part of a broader initiative that has helped foster incredible growth, renewed hope and real healing in the community. FAST teams and parent graduates will continue to serve the parents and children at Auer as they redefine and take back their neighborhood.”