At the Heart of Family Learning: Fostering collaborative partnerships for learning systems

In Dr. Dana Suskind’s recent book, “Parent Nation” she writes, “Real, essential change will occur only when there is a concerted, collective, national effort to bring it about” (p. 23). In context, she was referring to society coming together with wraparound support for families to meet children’s developmental needs. But the same sentiment applies for bringing about thriving, equitable communities for families—and it’s why we intend to partner with Dr. Suskind, as well as many others, as we move forward advancing our work in 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

Over the past few months, I have heard more education and social impact organizations describe many of the same facets for improving education and workforce efforts in communities. A common takeaway from these conversations, is the need for organizations to work more closely together—to act more collaboratively, build shared goals, lead stronger bottom-up change efforts for greater coordination and alignment across local initiatives, and establish local policies that help ensure families, especially children and adults furthest from opportunity, gain access to opportunities that can set them on new pathways that are sustainable and lead to positive outcomes not only for them, but for their communities as well.

Inequities run rampant across communities, and so many families are currently locked out of opportunities. At NCFL, we believe collaboration in communities is key to transforming learning and educational opportunities that have the power to reconcile and restore our families in powerful ways. Central to our mission and vision, we believe it is necessary for a community to double-down on efforts to support families’ literacy and technology skill development, leadership development, and social networks that support upskilling for young people and adults to meet the demands of our current and future workplace and civic engagement. The challenge is too big for one group or organization; rather we must engage children and families in creating solutions while working to enhance the role of collaborative community models. 

I’m sure we have all experienced what it is like to work in a silo. At times we’re so busy and so focused on our work that we miss opportunities that come about when working in concert with similar organizations. But when we open the silo, pool resources, and welcome diverse viewpoints, we work towards building a system of support for families that is comprised of interconnected and complementary services. This type of coordination and alignment can be exponential for communities aiming to achieve more equitable outcomes for children and families.

Take for example the strong partnerships of the Nebraska Statewide Family Engagement Center (NE SFEC) that are resulting in positive impacts on Nebraska families. Since 2018, NCFL has led the NE SFEC with partners Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, Nebraska Department of Education, Unite for Literacy, and the U.S. Department of Education. Each year the partners have worked to develop and grow a statewide network of Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) and have trained school district staff to implement high-impact family literacy programming for multilingual families. Now in 14 school districts across the state in urban, suburban, and rural communities, this model for collaboration is shifting the narrative around children and families—particularly those living in poverty—from passively interacting with school, to developing greater agency and leadership to be equal partners in education. This partnership definitely serves as a proof point for deep engagement and collaboration.

Surveys of participating families indicate that the programming is helping parenting adults to build confidence in themselves and gain knowledge in how children learn and how to interact with their children for language and literacy skill development. We encourage you to register for NCFL’s Families Learning Conference to hear more about this work from the Director of the NE SFEC as well as leaders from other SFECs on October 26th. 

Our work coordinating statewide collaboration of student and family learning systems continues—the U.S. Department of Education recently announced that NCFL has been selected to create and lead the Colorado Statewide Family Engagement Center (CO SFEC). In partnership with Colorado Education Initiative, the Colorado Department of Education, the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition, and the Black Parent Network, the CO SFEC will build the capacity of families, schools, and communities to address learning recovery and related impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as implement practices and systems to improve student development and family well-being. Read more about this work here.

NCFL’s work is grounded in equity and prioritizes the voices of children and families. We believe that those who are most impacted by issues in a community must be included in developing solutions for those issues. Our commitment to equity is not new; we have codified how equity is at the forefront of everything we do and families voices’ are always centered. When entering into a community or implementing programming, we are guided by specific equity design principles, inspired by Kelly Ann McKercher’s principles of co-design in “Beyond Sticky Notes” (p. 14). NCFL is committed to:

  • Fostering community leadership and building capacity
  • Addressing issues of educational inequities
  • Working towards systems change
  • Sharing power and decision making
  • Prioritizing Relationships
  • Practicing inclusivity

Adhering to these principles fosters collaborative partnerships that build powerful learning ecosystems. Read more about NCFL’s equity principles for community entry here.

Changing the course of how communities work more collaboratively to advance equity outcomes will be difficult, but the collective impact of building partnerships in service to families is well worth the effort. Our commitments to lifelong learning, multigenerational programming, and deep community engagement working alongside children and families will not waver.

Join us as we go deeper and accelerate toward improved education and economic outcomes for all. Learn more about NCFL’s vision for the future of family learning in communities by exploring my previous blog posts, and reach out to express your interest in partnering with us.


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.