At the Heart of Family Learning: Building the conditions to support transformational change

Since January, I have shared NCFL’s 60×30 vision for building equitable and thriving communities across the country; that is, by 2030, we will have established aligned and coordinated Family Learning Systems in 60 communities. We believe Family Learning Systems support intergenerational learning needs and create pathways for families to find educational success and economic prosperity. Those pathways include deep learning in opportunities focused in family literacy, family engagement, and family leadership. We’ve explored family literacy—the fundamental pathway (and NCFL’s legacy work) that supports families in building literacy, technology, and workforce skills essential to economic prosperity; family engagement—the bridge across schools, homes, and the community that supports student learning and achievement and family wellbeing, as well as capacity-building of families and educators; and family leadership—the pathway that centers parenting adults’ voices, and supports them in refining their leadership and advocacy skills to propose solutions to challenges affecting their communities. 

In today’s blog post, I’ll explore how family literacy, family engagement, and family leadership connect and work together in an integrated system that supports children and families in reaching their academic and economic goals and fosters more equitable, thriving communities.

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

NCFL believes education is a shared responsibility and collaboration between families, schools, and community members. The crux of our work is that we create and connect initiatives and partners in communities where families engage in and help to design high quality learning experiences. I emphasize that last part, because including families as equal partners in the work is key to transformational change in communities. We’re not “giving families a voice”—families already have voices and are willing to share. We’re not “empowering families”—families already have the power within themselves to make change. Instead, we are creating the conditions and putting in place the supports to help families transform their own lives and communities. 

So, what are the conditions and supports?

Drawing on our 33 years of work in family learning, we know that long-lasting, positive impact for families requires coordination among multiple partners in a community. So. the first condition is to enhance collaborative community models by creating strategic connections across family-focused services and programs, all the while ensuring stakeholder input is inclusive and valued through a co-design process.

An illustration of three concentric circles, each containing a different icon. The center circle contains an icon of a family, the middle circle contains the same family and an icon of a school, and the outer circle contains the family and a larger group of people representing the community.
An illustration of three concentric circles that represent
the family, the family-school micro-community,
and the larger community in which they reside.

Once those connections are in place, NCFL can work together alongside children, families, and local and national partners to co-design and implement high-impact multi-generational education programs (birth through adulthood). Family literacy, engagement, and leadership complement and support each other as interdependent parts working together in a system to benefit the family unit, the family-school micro-community, and the larger community in which the families and school are located. 

Along the way, it is vital to track and capture family stories, data, and evaluation of the impact of multi-generational learning in order to help identify gaps and opportunities to better support and deepen our engagement alongside families.

With these conditions in place, we can spread and scale effective policies, practices, and programs rooted in the needs of children and families. Family Learning Systems are a part of larger community ecosystems but are designed specifically to create opportunities for children and parenting adults to be changemakers in their communities. 

In closing, it’s possible to design a new, brighter future but it will take all of us intentionally focusing on creating the conditions that pave the way to greater access and opportunities through education and economic development. Creating more equitable and thriving communities is about disrupting the status quo. It’s hard work, but we’re up for the challenge. We hope you’ll plan to join us on 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.