Our Tomorrow: Meet one mom who is spear-heading the Family Tech Support center to assist students in online learning

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In the middle of March Seattle Public schools announced the short-term shutdown of schools and that no remote learning would take place due to equity issues. When Julie Forcum—a mom of two—heard this, she wanted to do something about it.

“I think a number of people in the community just felt like ‘wow, that’s awful that there are not technical resources in a city like Seattle, such that we would have to shut down learning because we can’t make it fair for everyone,” Julie said.

Meanwhile, Julie’s friend Rachel Lazar who is also a West Seattle resident, reached out to the superintendent for business and finance at Seattle Public Schools (SPS) to ask what it would take to get things equitable enough so everyone could learn. It was around this time that Amazon donated 8,500 Chromebooks to SPS but a system to help families navigate this technology was still needed.

That’s where Julie stepped in, volunteering to help spearhead the creation of the Family Technology Support Center, pulling together resources and volunteers to doll out information and help.

Want to get involved? Right now since it’s summer Julie says they’re not looking for volunteers but to keep an eye out for opportunities posted on the SPS website as September approaches. Meanwhile, you can make a donation to the Education Equity Fund which was created by the Alliance for Education and Seattle Public Schools to continue learning through the COVID-19 crisis.

The following is a Q&A with Julie that has been edited for length and clarity:

How has homeschooling and working part-time gone?

Julie: I am fortunate in that I work part-time. I had the flexibility to be able to support (my kids), but part-time doesn’t mean I work every day from 8 to 10. It means I have meetings peppered throughout the whole week.

This wasn’t really remote learning — this was emergency learning. That’s an important distinction. It wasn’t normal in any way, and there weren’t any standards put out by SPS. So what was really hard as a parent trying to work part-time hours, was not helping my kids with curriculum, but helping them with when to do what. There were no standards, there was no rhythm, there was no structure to the day.

As an adult, it’s hard enough to keep track of the meetings that you have throughout the day. Kids aren’t used to looking at a calendar to say, ‘where do I need to go next? What’s the next thing I need to log into?’ They’re used to being shuttled from place to place physically. So the complication for part-time or not, or even those families who had a non-working parent who could support them, was that there were no tools or systems to help you figure out the rhythm of school.

What has the process been like with the family support center? 

Julie: The first few weeks were really figuring out, ‘how are we going to set this up?’ At first, it was a large team of people trying to pull the information out of Seattle Public Schools to learn ‘What are people going to be calling about? What are the systems that you have them using? If they have to log in, ok what do you call where they have to log in?’

We weren’t sure whether families were going to call with, ‘I don’t know how to make my mouse work’ or ‘I don’t know how to log into SPS’ — which are really different types of questions. So we just were interviewing SPS, combing through materials, and creating this guide, as well as working with Amazon to try to set up call center software, and creating the IVR systems — you know, press 1 if you need Spanish, press 2 if you’re a middle-school student — kind of that whole logic.

Sea.Citi reports that the Family Tech Support Center has fielded 2,500 calls and made nearly 1,000 calls to families, can you tell us more about these numbers?

Julie: We had volunteers who had just been sitting there sometimes on a shift where no one was calling them. We got to this idea about two-thirds of our way through our effort. We said ‘why are we waiting for families to tell us they have a problem?’ We should be trying to confirm if the families were successful. That kind of flip in thinking really got us thinking…can we call every family that got a Chromebook and ask them how they’re doing? Well no, but we can call some of them, so we asked the district to provide us with the contact info of who got a device, who were from schools with the highest proportion of black and brown boys and teens.

We came up with a list of about 1200 and we went to our list of volunteers who had been most active and said hey can anybody be available for a one-time four-hour effort to call as many of these 1200 families as we can. Let’s see how many families we can call. We gave them a list and a script and it was a little different than ‘what’s your problem?, it was ‘hey we know you received a Chromebook, the family tech support center we wanted to reach out to you and see how it’s going’. We got a lot of voicemails but we also reached a lot of people.