This fall, Ferndale School District (FRC) created a new place for its families to seek assistance: the Family Resource Center. The FRC provides a cornucopia of help for local families, from free food (courtesy of the Ferndale Food Bank) to school supplies to adult education courses.
The heartbeat of the FRC is its family liaisons. While our liaisons work with all families, they focus on providing outreach and support to our Ferndale families and students whose English is not their first language, or who might have traditionally felt excluded from receiving assistance. Along with Kim Bunch, who assists Ferndale students experiencing homelessness, the FRC has two family liaisons serving Spanish-speaking families, Catalina Boyle and Patricia Curtis, and a liaison for Native American and Lummi students and families, Jessica Phair.
“We can go anywhere or be anywhere for anybody – parents, students, or faculty,” Phair said.
By spending time with two of our family liaisons, we learned more about the roles that they play and how they can be of service to our families, students, schools, and community.
One February afternoon, Curtis and Custer third grade teacher Alexandria Pederson met with a mother and her daughter during a family-teacher conference. The mother only spoke Spanish, so Curtis interpreted Pederson’s typical conference feedback, including how the student was kind to other students in class.
“Preguntas por la señora?” (“Questions for the teacher?”) Curtis asked the parent at the end of the interview, ensuring that the family member’s voice was heard.
Afterwards, Pederson said having Curtis present to interpret for her student’s Spanish-speaking families is critical.
“Getting the families involved is super important in a students’ education,” she said.
Curtis said helping interpret during conferences goes beyond relaying messages. She also uses this opportunity to introduce herself to Ferndale and Custer’s Spanish-speaking families, and make sure they have all the support and resources they need for their child to succeed in school. Curtis even checks in with the school counselor to ask if there are any families that specifically requested assistance.
“It’s helpful for us to check back with these families afterwards and ask, ‘Is everything okay in school with your student?’” she said. “It’s not just language interpretation.”
Curtis was hired by Ferndale in October 2022, right at the FRC’s launch. Before joining the FRC, she worked for 18 years in the Bellingham School District, both as an accounting technician and a family liaison. She also volunteered in a before- and after-school program in Bellingham called Flan, where she taught Spanish to elementary and middle schoolers.
Curtis came out of a brief retirement to work at the FRC because of her passion for helping local families.
“Working with families gives you an incredible satisfaction,” she said. “They need help, they want to be heard, and you’re there, getting them connected.”
Curtis is already consistently in contact with many families in the region, connecting them with the resources they need. For example, one family she translated for told her that they needed beds for their kids. She was then able to work with Kim Bunch to acquire two bunk beds for their family.
“It’s not just an interpreter/translator relationship – they become almost like a family,” she said. “Any time that they need you, they will call you.”
Jessica Phair was reading with a small group of Skyline Elementary fifth graders one morning, most of whom were from Lummi Nation. She served as an encouraging presence, helping one student pronounce the word “bilingual” in her book, and gently nudging another student to try reading her book aloud.
“Be brave!” she told the student, with a smile on her face. “You’re a really good reader, don’t be shy.”
Phair visited Carolyn Sytsma’s fifth grade class daily in the fall. Sytsma’s class had a handful of Lummi students, and Phair was able to build connections with some of those students who were more reserved by encouraging them to participate and join in with their classmates.
Phair said she built trust with these students by talking about their family connections or the students’ interests. For example, one student who had difficulties paying attention in class was into doodling optical illusions. Phair told him one day that if he finished his math assignment, he could get back to his art. He agreed, quickly finished the math problems – and got all of the questions right!
“It’s easier to connect with students when I know subjects that will pique their interest,” she said. “A lot of the students I don’t know, but I know their families – we’re connected somehow or another.”
Phair, who was hired by Ferndale School District in September, has deep roots in education. Both of her grandmas helped adults earn their GEDs. Her mother, Jessie Deardorff, served on the Ferndale School Board.
Phair herself has had a knack for helping students since she was a teen. In middle and high school, she tutored students at the Lummi Recreational Outreach Center and worked at Head Start. More recently, she spent three years at the Lummi Early Learning Center, teaching infants and toddlers motor, speech, and cognitive skills.
Since joining the FRC as a family liaison, Phair has reached out to numerous Native American students and families. She said she loves making those connections, seeing students' progress and being someone that families can contact.
“I just find it beautiful, really – it’s just so cool to see all these people that you had a little hand in molding,” Phair said.
Sometimes, building relationships means home visits. During one visit, she was trying to motivate a high schooler to finish up strong, so his family could see him graduate. Phair now keeps tabs on that student whom she visited, making sure he’s attending class and keeping his grades up so he can earn a diploma. This student’s elementary-aged sibling has since asked if Phair can visit them at school too.
There are other instances where Phair has acted as a conduit between Lummi families and school staff, all with the goal of helping students. One example involves a parent contacting her about her child being taunted at school.
“She was like, ‘I don’t know what to do,’ so she called me up,” Phair said. “Then I let the teacher know what she confided in me, and the teacher said, ‘Oh, I had no idea,’ so she had it on her radar after that.”
Phair said she also provides a friendly face for students of color in Ferndale schools, who don’t always see many school staff who look like them.
“Even non-Tribal students – I’ve had some Latina students who will come up and talk with me,” she said. “Students can see me and identify with me.”
Phair said the key to being an effective family liaison is to be present.
“That was something that I learned at the Early Learning Center – you just need to be where the students are; be in their world, join them at their level,” she said. “Don’t try and force an agenda on them. Just grow with them.”