Friend Tree: Draw Strength from Your Community

father and son friend tree

At Frank L. Madla Early College High School, our school culture includes a strong community of support. When alumni reflect on their time with us, they often remark that they leave us—and move onward to complete their college journey—with a community that they consider family. But how do we stay connected to that community when campuses are closed? As the Principal and the Academic Counselor at our school, we have encouraged families to sit with their students and complete this Friend Tree activity together.

For more ideas about summer experiences you can do while learning at home with your kids, visit the main page, Charter a Summer of Learning.

Family Tree and Friend Tree

Back in March, when campuses had to close due to COVID-19, we heard from families that they wanted to spend time with their kids teaching life skills. This goes both ways—for example, parents teaching family recipes to their kids, and the kids teaching TikTok dances to their parents. For one family, the parents spent time drawing a family tree for their children, so they could know where they came from. In turn, the student drew a friend tree—a map of the friends in their support network. We thought this was such a valuable activity that we have shared it with all of our students and their families so they can create their own friend trees.

We are all trying to adapt to this new, technology-centered model, where families are spending more time at home together, and a lot of learning is happening virtually. We encourage families to stay involved in their kids’ lives throughout high school and college. When parents and teens create a friend tree together, the parents learn about who are the important peers in their children’s lives. Parents can help support their kids’ social lives while maintaining physical distance. As an open enrollment charter school, we have students spread out all over the region, so we have to be more thoughtful about maintaining connections.

There are a many different ways to build your friend tree. It can be as simple as sitting down with a pencil and a piece of scrap paper. You can expand this activity by adding more information to the friend tree: Collect photos of the people you want to include in your tree. Gather letters, awards, and newspaper articles that tell your friends’ stories. Make notes about how you met each friend on your tree.

When students talk to each other by phone or video chat, they can share about each others’ friend trees and discover how they are all interconnected. Sharing and organizing this information can be a lot of fun.

Madla Milestones

We are an early college high school, and that means we are asking a lot of our students. They are doing six years of work in four years, earning a high school diploma and an Associate’s degree. So they need to know that their support network—the people on their friend tree—have their backs. Part of our school culture is setting goals and celebrating milestones. We ask every student, “Where do you see yourself?” and then make a roadmap to get there. That journey can take years, and we want to find steps along the way that provide opportunities to celebrate.

In spite of the pandemic, we still want our students to keep working towards their goals. However, there are a lot things happening that we can’t control, and so we have to adjust. Our counselors can’t just talk to a student in the hallway and ask how their college essay is going. Students benefit from structure, but we have to be flexible and create new routines that work in the world we live in now. We believe that the students experiencing the pandemic will come through with more resilience than any other group we have seen.

As you talk to your kids about their dreams and long term goals, be mindful of steps along the way that you can celebrate with them. It’s like taking a road trip with your family, and stopping at the rest stop at the state line to stretch your legs, look at the map, and take some pictures. You can be proud of how far you have come, and gather energy to keep pushing towards your big goal. Students know that they have their community—their family tree and their friend tree—cheering for them at every step.

Charter Moms Chats

Watch Inga Cotton’s interview with Khalid Zakaria and Jeff Flores on Charter Moms Chats.

For more ideas about summer experiences you can do while learning at home with your kids, visit the main page, Charter a Summer of Learning.

About the Authors

Jeff Flores is the founding Principal of Frank L. Madla Early College High School, an open enrollment charter school where students in grades 9–12 have the opportunity to simultaneously earn their high school diploma and an Associate’s Degree (60 credits) from Palo Alto College at no cost. Mr. Flores also has experience as the principal at Henry Ford Academy: Alameda School for Art + Design; as Director of School Operations, Planning, and Accountability for the National Council of La Raza (NCLR); and as a Field Service Agent for the Educational Service Center, Region 20. In addition, he has been a teacher, coach, and school administrator overseeing and developing curriculum and instruction, special education, discipline, and guidance counseling programs. Mr. Flores holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Government with an emphasis on Southwestern Studies, as well as a Master’s of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from Our Lady of the Lake University. He also holds a certificate in Non-Profit Management and Leadership from the University of Texas at San Antonio, as well as a Master’s in Business Management from Indiana Wesleyan University.

Khalid Zakaria is the Academic Counselor at Frank L. Madla Early College High School. He is a graduate of East Central High School here in San Antonio, TX.  Upon his graduation from East Central, Mr. Zakaria went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood Development/Education.  Mr. Zakaria spent seven years teaching at the elementary level, before transitioning to the middle school level in 2012 at New Frontiers Middle School. While at New Frontiers, Mr. Zakaria served as an 8th grade math teacher.  In May of 2013, Mr. Zakaria graduated from Texas A&M University—San Antonio, where he earned his Master of Arts in Counseling.  Mr. Zakaria also completed his Education Administration Certificate at Texas A&M University—San Antonio. He is now working toward his Ph.D. in Leadership Studies.