At the Heart of Family Learning: Interview with Southern Education Foundation’s Fred Jones

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

This African proverb is a favorite of mine. When I worked at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, I would pass this proverb on the wall each time I entered the campus. Each time, the power of it would stop me in my tracks, and I’d spend a few moments to pause and reflect. Now, in my role as President & CEO of the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL), I realize more than ever that this proverb speaks to the importance of working together, in partnership, and in community–something that the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL) does daily, alongside partners, children, and families across the country. One of our key partners is the Southern Education Foundation (SEF), an organization committed to advancing equitable education policies and practices that elevate learning for low-income students and students of color in the southern states. 

NCFL is working alongside SEF to improve learning outcomes for the youngest children in the southern region–work that SEF has been committed to for decades. The organization was established in the years after the Civil War to create a public education system to serve newly freed Blacks across the South. As we deepen our partnership, this month’s blog will elevate the voice of one of our key partners in the work, SEF Senior Director of Public Policy & Advocacy, Fred A. Jones, Jr

Fred was kind enough to join in conversation with me about the work of SEF, their new network dedicated to early childhood education, and the challenges he envisions on the road ahead.

Felicia Cumings Smith: Tell us a little about the work of SEF and what drew you to the organization?

Fred Jones: SEF is the longest-standing education justice organization in the country. The organization was founded to help establish an education system for the formerly enslaved population. Our vision is to achieve education equity in the South for all students of color and those from low-income families by ensuring all young learners have access to a high-quality education and the opportunity to succeed. We advance equitable education practices and policies in the South through research, public policy, and advocacy and leadership development that will result in every student, regardless of background, attaining a high-quality education that propels them toward the opportunity-rich life they deserve.

In both my personal and professional life, I highly value racial equity, educational excellence, innovation, and systems change. No other organization in the country takes a racial equity lens to regional education policy and advocacy. SEF’s rich history and connection to the civil rights movement led me to start working here. However, it is our current work to support students of color and low-income students throughout the South by using advocacy and government affairs strategies to help improve systems that keep me anchored in our cause.

At a time when there seems to be unprecedented public opposition to teaching Black history, supporting DEI programs, and even helping early care workers better understand the myriad of cultures their children come from is under attack, it is liberating to know the organization you work for shares an intrinsic value of the pursuit of racial equity. SEF is a tremendous place to pursue racial justice, innovation, and systems change.

FCS: The launch of the Southern Early Childhood Education Justice Network (SECEJ) is an exciting opportunity for your organization. Tell us your vision for this network and what SEF and its network partners hope to accomplish.

FJ: The SECEJ network brings together more than 30 state policy organizations and advocates to focus on improving and expanding early learning opportunities for young children across the South. The network’s purpose is to advocate for systemic and transformative early childhood education policy improvements in the South, focusing primarily on historically underserved children of color and those living in low-income families.

SEF focuses much of its work in 17 southern states. Our region is home to nearly 60% of the nation’s Black children under age five and half of the nation’s young children in low-income households. Many families in our states and across the country stand to benefit from greater access to high-quality early learning programs that can help children thrive and be prepared for school.

We were able to launch the network thanks to the support of the Bezos Family Foundation. The network is a major need for our states. While many southern states once were at the forefront of improving early childhood education, only about 40% of the region’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in free, public pre-K programs in the 2021-22 school year, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Enrollment in some statewide public pre-K programs has stalled in many states because of a lack of public funding and political support. Access to child care is also a significant issue in the South: in 10 of the 17 SEF states, the average annual costs of infant care are higher than in-state tuition at public four-year colleges and universities in the region.

The SECEJ network will develop a regional policy and advocacy agenda to address issues across the early childhood spectrum — including the escalating costs of high-quality child care and low compensation for early childhood educators. Additionally, SEF is supporting the development of state advocacy councils in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, and Tennessee that will bring together diverse sets of partners such as parents and caregivers, child-care providers, and others to advocate for changes in policy and practice that support young children and the early care workforce.

FCS: SEF has identified key national partners, like NCFL, to engage in this work. Why were you excited to see NCFL join this engagement to support state teams?

FJ: NCFL has such an important national leadership role in family engagement and education, and we fully understand the impact of your work on young children’s opportunities to learn and grow. The SECEJ network brings together leaders and organizations across the entire spectrum of work that impacts the lives and learning of the South’s young children. NCFL brings to the network its valuable experience and considerable network of educators, caregivers, and community leaders to this spectrum of early childhood advocacy organizations. 

We also deeply value NCFL’s research capacity, both from a qualitative and quantitative standpoint. But more than anything, advocacy and coalition building is about relationships and being in a community with like-minded partners. NCFL has committed leaders who provide valuable on-the-ground insight and expertise that complement the skills and knowledge of SEF and other network partners. We also think NCFL’s state-level connection can help support our regional approach to our work by leveraging existing relationships and current partnerships. 

FCS: What challenges do you anticipate as we deepen our work in this space and how might we mitigate those as a collective across states?

FJ: There’s a growing consensus nationally on the need to expand and improve early childhood in each southern state — and nationwide — among early childhood advocates, those working directly in the field, and state and federal policymakers. Expanding and deepening this consensus is one of the main challenges facing our network of early childhood organizations.

Unfortunately, general agreement on the needs does not always translate to successful advancements of meaningful state and federal policies. The SECEJ network, and other key members, such as NCFL, face additional hurdles in making change. Advancing racial equity is still a key priority, not only for improving early childhood but also for improving the general health of our nation. It is a challenge to help state leaders understand the lasting benefits of improving racial equity in the face of the intense media coverage of largely misinformed, anti-diversity/DEI sentiments and pushback. Interestingly enough, most people agree with the actual function of DEI programs when it is presented without the words diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Some of today’s most urgent early childhood issues can also be challenging to explain and build support for change. Improving early-care workforce pay is one of the network’s main priorities. Many child-care center staff members earn meager pay, which could be partly addressed if states increase their contributions to matching federal subsidies for child-care providers. States should invest more resources in early childhood education, which pays off for children and the general public. However, it requires convincing many lawmakers to make this investment.

It’s encouraging to see policymakers generally willing to discuss early childhood issues with SEF and members of our network. Child-care availability and costs are an issue that impacts nearly every family, and the growing body of research is clear about the importance of early learning and care starting at birth. Even in these divisive political times, many state leaders are waking up to these needs and see the value (and long-term savings) in high-quality early care programs and other services that support children and families.

All of these reasons show why the SECEJ network of organizations is necessary and how we can make such a meaningful difference. Advocacy groups such as SEF and NCFL partner with state-level organizations to learn how policy can enable positive change and share the responsibility for taking action.


As I close out this week’s blog post, and in honor of Black History Month, I want to once again offer my thanks to SEF, Fred Jones for their leadership and dedication to improving the lives of Black Americans. Another organization demonstrating strong leadership in this area is Child Trends. Their recently published 100-Year Review of Research on Black Families details the research and progress focused on the betterment of Black children and families over the past 100 years. The research agenda affiliated with this work adds a unique and progressive approach to applying a racial lens to research. The research and evaluation efforts NCFL is pursuing within our 60×30 framework–while not strictly focused on Black families–nevertheless align closely with the equity tenets outlined by Child Trends.

The applied research agenda from Child Trends has captured my attention–and likely the attention of many others across the country. It is playing an important role in reframing the policy discourse around Black families from one that is deficit-based to one that is asset-based. Local, state, and national philanthropy must commit to making this type of research effort a priority in 2024 to both move the field forward and to ensure that we’re creating policy solutions that meet the needs of all families, whatever their social, cultural, or economic background.

Now more than ever, communities are drawing upon their local expertise and that of regional and national organizations who have the ability to bring lessons learned from across the country to illuminate a local path forward. The road ahead of us is a long one. But together in partnership with organizations like SEF, I know we can find the strength and devotion to travel the miles ahead.


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.

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