Staff and families at Twin Lakes Elementary never know where they might find family liaison Danielle McFarlane.
One day she might be preparing hot cocoa for staff as part of her role on the sunshine committee. Another day, she could be supporting a family as part of her role on the crisis team, and on another, she could be serving food in the cafeteria.
The stories about McFarlane going above and beyond seem endless — from securing coats and supporting recent refugees to buying dog food for a family who couldn’t afford it. Although her title might imply a focus on just the parents of a student, she sees learning and community through a holistic lens. For her, this means creating a safe and joyful environment for staff and students as well as families by any means necessary.
“We have a high belief that if you show up, happy and joyful to be here, our students will show up like that as well. And so we’ll be able to aid them in their education and their academics,” she said, “and their life skills.”
McFarlane was nominated by multiple community members as an outstanding leader in Federal Way. For her commitment to making sure students are taken care of, and for her positivity and school spirit, she is The Mirror’s Hometown Hero this month.
“I have watched her go above and beyond, repeatedly for over 10 years, to make sure every family has what they need to be healthy and thriving,” said Judi LaChapelle-Lotta, a kindergarten teacher at Twin Lakes Elementary. “From basic essentials, to rent, to holiday support, to ensuring there iare no food insecurities during breaks, she is a master at her craft. I cannot say enough about her support for our families.”
Robert Koplin started in his role this year as principal of Twin Lakes Elementary, and said that McFarlane has been a vital support in his journey of building trust with the families of the school.
“She’s forged so many positive relationships with our families and our kids, including families who really have not always had access or have been historically marginalized,” Koplin said. “I have to deal with the good, the bad and the ugly with all families, and her being kind of at my right hand, giving me this information, allows me to really lead with empathy, to make sure families can keep their dignity and really that we can work through hard things together. She brings a level of cultural responsiveness, cultural sensitivity and positivity.”
“There’s a lot that happens before learning can happen,” Koplin said. “Danielle helps us forge those critical relationships with families so that they become partners in this work and we can really ensure that our scholars are learning here at Twin Lakes.”
McFarlane grew up in Federal Way and began working in schools through the AmeriCorps program, working there for several years before becoming a supervisor. She then joined the Twin Lakes team about nine years ago as a family liaison and has been there ever since.
“The reason that I do this work is because when I was a part of the district….when I went to school, there wasn’t anyone like me to support me with my journey,” McFarlane said. “I just promised myself that I would come back.”
McFarlane said she lives in Tacoma, but chooses to work at Twin Lakes Elementary because it’s important to her to support the Federal Way community: “I wanted to do better than what was done for me.”
When asked what she strives to give her students and families that she didn’t have, she said, “I just want these kids to have a good experience. I don’t want them to hate school, I don’t want them to not like teachers, I don’t want them to not feel safe or welcome.”
Another Twin Lakes parent, Anna Patrick, said that McFarlane “has performed miracles for our families at Twin Lakes.”
In the Facebook post where she was nominated, several commentors shared their enthusiastic support for McFarlane’s nomination, saying “She does so much for our families and students at Twin Lakes Elementary,” “couldn’t agree more!!! She very much deserves this award!!!!” “100% agree” and “count me in on this nomination please! I have also seen her support students and families at our school for years!”
Twin Lakes Elementary is one of 21 elementary schools in the Federal Way Public Schools district. Plenty of students need a little extra support at the school, with 72 percent of Twin Lakes’ 368 students being considered low income, according to the school’s report card on the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). This is close to the districtwide average of 74% low income students. Approximately one out of five students have a disability and about 10% are homeless, both of which are higher rates than the district as a whole. About 16.6% are English language learners, which is about half the district total of 29.8% English language learners.
As part of the district’s goals and the school’s goals, McFarlane and Koplin shared that they are intentional about getting feedback from families and acting on that. As one example, Koplin said that parents “wanted to see more representation of diverse families and linguistic diversity in our libraries. So that led to us making a lot of purchases for our library to make sure our languages and our cultures are represented in the books that our kids access.”
“Kids need to feel accepted and have a sense of belonging. When they see their families come in and be accepted and belong, that helps them feel safe and accepted and that they belong too,” Koplin said.
Co-workers at the school share that not only does McFarlane support students with meeting their basic needs, she also brings a positive energy through her school spirit and engagement.
“She comes in full gear for spirit days dressed as emotions, in pajamas and more,” Twin Lakes teacher Kendra Domingo Drummond said. “She supports students who need those breaks beyond recess within the day and strengthens home/school communication with parents. She loves life and exudes positivity!”