At the Heart of Family Learning: Building capacity of educators and families through family engagement

Over the past few months, I have advanced a description of NCFL’s vision for what it would mean to have Family Learning Systems in communities across the country. These systems are grounded in and strategically aligned to family, district, and community learning goals for children and families. Building a well-defined, coordinated, and aligned system that supports intergenerational learning needs creates pathways for families to find educational success and economic prosperity. The pathways, or components, of a Family Learning System are family literacy, family leadership, and family engagement. 

We believe our legacy work in family literacy is fundamental to shifting literacy and learning outcomes in communities. We see family leadership opening opportunities for parents and caregivers to exercise their leadership and advocacy skills to propose solutions to challenges affecting their communities. And, we believe in strong family engagement efforts that are designed in partnership with schools, districts, and community-based organizations, and are aimed at transforming the experiences of families with educators in communities. This month, I’m highlighting the role of family engagement as a bridge across schools, homes, and the community.

Graphic with Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith's headshot and a red ribbon in the shape of a heart. The text reads At the Heart of Family Learning with Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith

Family engagement programming includes learning opportunities, events, activities, and strategies that support children’s academic achievement. Sometimes caregiver education is included; however, it is rare to find family engagement programs that include adult skill-building based on goal setting. Program supports provided are often less intensive and of shorter duration than aforementioned programs supporting families, like family literacy.

For decades, we’ve known the importance of involving and engaging parents as an integral part contributing to successful school turnaround, greater literacy and learning outcomes, and higher attendance rates. Many research studies over the years tell us that when parents are actively involved in their children’s education, children do better in school (Eccles & Harold, 1996; Epstein, 1996; Epstein & Dauber, 1991; Henderson & Berla, 1994). Moreover, we’ve seen a heightened awareness and increased focus on family engagement across the country in the last two years, as a result of the pandemic. According to Learning Heroes’ survey that was conducted at the start of the 2021-22 school year, 93% of parents stated they intended to be as or more involved in their children’s education as they were in the 2020-21 school year, and the majority of teachers (86%) and principals (84%) similarly stated that they will spend the same or more effort on family engagement (Learning Heroes, 2021).

Despite family engagement’s well publicized efficacy, the education field still struggles to authentically engage families, particularly those experiencing poverty or whose voices and ideas have traditionally been underrepresented or left out of conversations. More often than not, families are not involved as co-designers of the experiences and opportunities intended for them, and activities carried out are unfocused, disjointed, or lacking in quality. NCFL believes parenting adults of the families most impacted by school leaders’ decisions need opportunities to share their knowledge and expertise—and families need access to tools, resources, and connections to advocate for their students and families.

JCPS Parent Advisory Council meeting in 2019, prior to COVID-19 closures
JCPS Parent Advisory Council meeting, prior to COVID-19 closures

Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) in Louisville, Kentucky serves as a strong model for operationalizing a dual capacity-building approach. Since 2018, NCFL and JCPS have created a robust partnership to develop bridges between families, schools, and the larger community. To build educator capacity, NCFL provides comprehensive services through professional development, coaching, and overall district support, creating a continuum of multigenerational strategies that elevate the voices of families and students. To support family capacity, NCFL and JCPS created a network of informed family leaders through the JCPS Parent Advisory Council (PAC), a district-wide opportunity for building community among family members, community members, district staff, and school teams, where voices are amplified to inform district and school decisions. All of these activities are designed intentionally to be purposeful and authentic experiences.

When the pandemic forced school closures in 2020, our partnership responded to focus on reaching and engaging families in a remote environment. Having developed deep relationships with both JCPS personnel and JCPS families, the team convened town halls and distributed learning resources and information quickly and effectively. Parents and caregivers expressed feeling thankful to be considered as partners with the schools and district in facilitating the challenging shift to remote learning.

Today, our partnership is advancing in a new direction, engaging students and families in learning beyond the school walls. This blog post describes NCFL’s new project with JCPS educators, students, and families with an effort to advance science education through wonder, immersive technologies, and service. 

Louisville area Activate! Families Transforming Communities group
JCPS/Louisville-area group of Activate! Families Transforming Communities

Bolstering family engagement was the starting point for NCFL’s partnership with JCPS. Now we’re working to develop leadership skills and deeper learning goals with parenting adults—bridging and aligning family engagement and family leadership efforts. This work is called Activate! Families Transforming Communities and is a local counterpart to the Activate! National Network that I wrote about in April.

In Ohio’s Akron Public Schools (APS), NCFL is working to establish the foundational infrastructure and readiness to incrementally and strategically build a districtwide continuum of family engagement across APS schools and grade levels. NCFL focused on building the foundation for APS in the first year of our partnership through a phased professional development package of research-based offerings for school personnel that provides staff with the right tools to welcome, work with, and encourage family participation in the school environment.

Our team recently wrapped up our first year of work training and coaching APS staff. Participants in nine schools were tasked with establishing a family engagement team at their school, self-selecting a goal, and implementing an action plan to help achieve that goal. Participants undertook a variety of projects focused on meeting their goals and increasing family voice and engagement. Projects ranged from establishing parking lot agreements with families to creating a community cookbook, and from meeting with a city council representative to discuss how the community might engage to co-creating a “Candyland Remix” math night with families.   

We’ve found that family engagement opportunities vary within communities across the nation. Whatever path a school or community-based education organization may take to engage families, NCFL recommends that programming or content should:

  • target the needs voiced by families, including their cultural and linguistic needs, and those of the communities in which they live;
  • be evidence-based and include practices that show promise;
  • honor and incorporate families’ funds of knowledge and lived experiences;
  • build capacity of parents and families to work closely with their children’s school and community-based organizations providing out-of-school time experiences;
  • focus on children’s academics and social-emotional well-being;
  • connect families to a greater community-wide network; and
  • advocate for caregiver inclusion, input, and leadership.

If your program or community is interested in supporting families with NCFL’s family engagement guidance, please contact us at

In this monthly series, we’ve explored NCFL’s vision for a Family Learning System, the necessary components that are part of the system, and our desire to partner with 60 communities by 2030 in the implementation of Family Learning Systems across the country. We appreciate those of you who have reached out to partner with us in launching an effort to establish more equitable communities where children and families can thrive. We encourage others to join us in this endeavor.

For more information:
Learn more about NCFL’s 60×30 Campaign by exploring my previous blog posts, and reach out to express your interest in becoming part of the 60×30 Campaign!


Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith

A lifelong educator and national thought leader for teaching and learning, Dr. Felicia C. Smith brings decades of valuable experience to advance NCFL’s mission of working to eradicate poverty through education solutions for families. Having served in a variety of leadership roles in P-12, higher education, nonprofit, and philanthropy, her career has allowed her to experience leading systems and develop a unique vantage point of a learner’s educational trajectory from preschool to adulthood. Smith holds an Ed.D. in education leadership and administration from the University of Kentucky, and an M.A. in elementary education with an emphasis on K-12 literacy development and B.S. in elementary education from the University of Louisville. 

Follow Dr. Felicia C. Smith on Twitter and LinkedIn.