New Position Intends to Create Strong Families, Strong Students

Renee Thompson photo

Strong families equate to strong students. Strong students tend to pursue a college degree and graduate.

OSU Mansfield has hired a family engagement and outreach coordinator to put that notion into action, in what it believes is the first collaboration anywhere between a school district, university and community.

“Students’ aspirations for college begin with the parents,” said Stephen Gavazzi, OSU Mansfield dean and director. “They need to show students that going to college is attainable.”

Gavazzi has spent more than two decades at Ohio State working as a family therapist and researcher. He literally has written the book on family engagement, publishing Strong Families, Successful Students in 2010.

He saw the need for such a program in Mansfield, a blue-collar town hard-hit by the loss of the General Motors manufacturing plant and other large area businesses.

“With my knowledge of families and schools, the OSU Mansfield board understood what I was trying to propose and that it wouldn’t be a short-term project,” he said. “I wanted to make a commitment for at least three years and use strategic cash reserves to support it.”

Gavazzi has three goals for the project: To solidify connections with school partners, to get the community actively involved and to increase the number of students attending college locally.

OSU Mansfield partnered with three area school districts: Mansfield City and Shelby in Richland County and Galion in Crawford County.

Blacklick resident Renee Thompson is the new family engagement coordinator.

She commutes from Columbus every day to tackle a daunting list of duties, from engaging parents through events and town hall meetings to coordinating an advisory committee of local non-profit organizations and college organizations, serving as a liaison to the local ministerial alliance, ensuring students are college ready and promoting the First-Year Experience and early arrival programs to new OSU Mansfield students.

“The fact that this is a new position, I don’t have anyone else’s blueprint to go by,” Thompson said. “To a large part, I am developing this position. It will have my personality, my thumbprint. It will be evolving.”

She says she will spend the first year immersing herself in the community, listening to students, parents and teachers and their concerns about education.

Thompson, who founded Families Come First, a central Ohio non-profit, sees herself as a facilitator and maintains offices at Mansfield Middle School and the campus to be close to stakeholders.

To that end, she already is coordinating a short-term math tutoring project between OSU students and Mansfield Middle School, requested by parents and designed to improve scores on the Ohio Achievement Test.

Thompson will keep parents informed of students’ progress and provide tips to help parents work with students during the three-month project.

She also is scheduling professional development training with teachers to help them understand changing family dynamics and learn better communication skills with families.

“Now there’s a concerted effort where we all recognize that family is important,” she said.

The position is housed under Admissions now, according to Ken Sigler, director of Admissions and Financial Aid, who sees it as a position that will work to engage families to be college-ready and promote more of a college-going culture. Roughly 40 percent who attend OSU Mansfield are first-generation college students.

“It may or may not stay under Admissions but we felt that there was a real outreach piece there to work with students,” Sigler said. “When we go out and recruit juniors and seniors, if they haven’t been doing what they needed to do to prepare, it’s just too late. So let’s focus on those 8th and 9th grade years and get a college-going attitude in the school districts and engage parents in that process.”