The first time most parents or guardians of a Berkeley student meet Jocelyn Foreman is soon after bad news has knocked on their door. Be it a death in the family, an eviction notice, a pink slip, or any crisis that throws a household into chaos, she is there to help.

Foreman belongs to a five-person team of family engagement coordinators whose academic mission is to close the achievement gap by ensuring that students have the resources they need to succeed. First things, however, must come first.

“How can you discuss academics when you don’t know where your next meal will come from? How can you discuss attendance when you don’t have shelter?”

Once Foreman and the parents resolve the family’s basic needs, they get around to facing the student’s challenges at school.

“The primary goal of family engagement is to create systems that produce equitable outcomes for all students,” Foreman said. “We can’t close the achievement gap with fear-based or punitive-based approaches.”

While focusing on elementary grades, the engagement coordinators connect within families to preschool, middle and high school. Foreman draws on broad personal experiences. She worked in Alameda County group homes for 20 years before coming to the school district and has served as a vice president of her union, the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees.

Jason Arenas of the Alameda County Office of Education estimates there are about 55 family engagement positions for the 225,000 students in the county’s 18 school districts. Arenas said the coordinators have helped districts make more authentic connections with families, especially with low-income and non-English-speaking households and students identified as foster youth.

The trend is growing thanks to Sacramento’s emphasis on parental involvement. This is the second full year that Foreman’s team has been funded under Berkeley’s Local Control and Accountability Plan begun in 2014.

“The district can’t put a dollar figure on how I feel when a family thanks me because they’ll be able to eat or have a place to sleep tonight,” Foreman said. “I feel like I’m the lucky one.”