Student and family engagement specialists offer districtwide support

Malia Wanderer and Sofie Zalatimo

Miguel Fittoria, the student and family engagement specialist coordinator, discusses the details of his job as a SaFE specialist outside the district office. Fittoria oversees a team of nine specialists who offer support to students and parents in the school system. “Our job is to really make sure that they have mentorship,” Fittoria said. “To help them navigate and feel like they actually are a valued member that they have just as much right to be here as everybody else.” Photo: Malia Wanderer

Three thousand. That’s how many phone calls student and family engagement specialists made to Palo Alto Unified School District families during the first months after the pandemic hit in the spring.

“With the pandemic and the school closures, this team did not skip a beat,” said Miguel Fittoria, the student and family engagement specialist coordinator. “The moment stuff shut down, we did exactly what we were doing, but more and just on the phone instead of in person.”

Spending their days making phone calls, replying to emails, and connecting families to resources, SaFE specialists work to provide guidance and support to all students and families in PAUSD. According to Fittoria, this support takes a variety of forms, including connecting families to food networks, mental health resources, and providing tech support.

“Our main objective with our SaFE team is to ensure that every family has equitable access to individuals who can help them navigate the school processes,” Fittoria said. “What we try to do is ensure that there isn’t just one cookie-cutter approach to the families, but really consider each family is an individual entity. And to be able to make sure that we put together all of the different pieces of support that they’ll need to accomplish what they need to.”

While SaFE specialists work closely with some families, they also connect with any students and families that need help, according to SaFE Specialist Micaela Flores.

“There’s a handful of families that you’re constantly checking in with, but I’m really here to support any families,” Flores said. “So sometimes, you know, a teacher will ask for help after they’ve tried a couple of times reaching out on their own and they haven’t been successful getting in touch with the family.”

The SaFE team is comprised of nine specialists who work across all the schools in the district. Last year, the program added more part- and full-time specialists to provide additional support to families. 

“We understood that there was a huge need not being met,” Fittoria said. “And the only way to really do it was to ramp it up even more. So now we have a team of nine that are full-time or part-time. They’re trained in family engagement specialists strategies, we coordinate on that, and so it’s a little bit more intensive, which is why people are hearing about it much more nowadays.”

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the duties of the SaFE specialists remain primarily the same but are now carried out virtually. According to Flores, adapting to changes brought by the pandemic has been difficult for both specialists and families.

“[Last year] I would be in the front office, and parents would be able to come in and find me if they needed me,” Flores said. “At least last year with some of the families that I didn’t know, they could see me in the front office and put the name to the face. Now, with our new sixth grade families, I don’t know them. I’m calling them and they don’t answer, or they’re like, ‘I don’t know who you are.’” 

Before the pandemic, Flores said she used to be able to connect with students by being physically present to support them, whereas now, she has to build relationships with them online. 

“I remember last year, I would walk with them to office hours, or I’d walk with them to a class that I know that they would always be late to,” Flores said. “Or being able to just walk in and like sit with them during their least favorite class and be there physically, like I’m here with you. And now it’s different because I can’t have that side conversation with them, like that’s really hard to do over Zoom.”

The SaFE team was established seven years ago in accordance with Title 1 programming, which provides educational services to address students’ needs in California schools. It was renamed from its previous title, Family Engagement Specialists, last year to emphasize the idea of student support. According to Fittoria, the specialists now address the concerns of both students and families.

“On one end, I want families to feel confident that they know what they need to do to help support their students through PAUSD,” Fittoria said. “On the student side of things, we want them to feel like they belong, and they’re a valued member of the Palo Alto community just as much as anybody else.”

According to Fittoria, SaFE specialists ultimately look to address the various problems students face to close the gap between them and their peers.

“This isn’t so much an achievement gap anymore; this isn’t an equity gap; this is a define-the-problem gap at this point,” Fittoria said. “There’s not just one gap or one issue, there are so many different ones. I think once we step back from that, we’ll start to really be able to see the playing field a little bit better and realize it’s a different gap for every different student.”