At the Heart of Family Learning: The start of the school year brings potential for engaging families

Greetings to the NCFL community of families, educators, and practitioners. After taking a break in July, I’m eager to resume my monthly blog, just in time for the start of school! This time of year is always exciting for me as I think about what a new year offers for potential learning opportunities, hope for deeper engagement with families, and enriching partnerships with community stakeholders to advance learning in communities. But, I know how hard the last two years have been for educators so I want to use this platform to celebrate educators across the country who are showing up daily—in spite of the challenges—and remaining focused on improving learning outcomes and engaging families. 

In my post this month, I’m highlighting outstanding educators committed to deepening their partnerships with families. Toyota Family Teachers of the Year are a special group of educators who serve parents, caregivers, and children using a strong multi-generational approach to learning and who focus on building effective family–school partnerships that support student achievement and school improvement. Their leadership and advocacy in their districts and local communities have transformed how parents and caregivers positively reflect a commitment to family engagement. Family engagement is an essential pillar of a Family Learning System, acting as a bridge across schools, homes, and 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

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting with many of these educators to learn about their plans for the upcoming school year.

Carolyn Blocker, 2013 winner of the Toyota Family Teacher of the Year, expressed with fervor how hard she has worked to gather buy-in from principals in her district to invest more in family engagement practices. She knows how impactful it is to have parents as partners in order to achieve student success so she plans to “double down” on her efforts this school year.

Zoom call with educators and NCFL staff
Dr. Smith’s recent Zoom call with past Toyota Family Teachers of the Year

Kristen Whitaker, 2015, shared that she’s looking forward to engaging families in virtual reality (VR) in order to enhance and support learning in new, innovative ways. She expressed, “There is so much potential in bringing VR to classrooms across the country; immersive technologies can boost student access, opportunities, and engagement, and shape learning in classrooms, communities, and the workplace.” I’m excited for her presentation at the 2022 Families Learning Conference, where she’ll moderate a panel of creators, students, and teachers on how to use VR to enhance the education experience and social-emotional learning.

Manoucheka Dolcine, 2021, said she’ll place her energy, focus, and advocacy on working with parents, particularly English language learners, as well as teen parents. Her commitment to working with parents and caregivers who have been historically marginalized drives her day-to-day efforts. As the most recent Toyota Family Teacher of the Year, she’s currently carrying out her award project which is to create a Literacy Resource Room at her school to support students, children, and families with computers and books, as well as with workshops and trainings on topics relevant to their needs.

Liz Atack, 2014, is feeling excited that over 60 family workshops are on her library’s schedule for the coming year—before the start of school (and without any advertising). She says, “It’s a good reminder that our work [at the Nashville Public Library] is meaningful not only to the schools and organizations with which we partner, but to their families as well.” 

Katy Kibbey, 2008, said that she’s looking forward to working with a local nonprofit in her home state of Michigan as they build out their afterschool College Success program for recent high school graduates and their families. She provides consulting for the program, which offers monthly coaching services to help students and their families have a successful first year of college.

Leila Kubesch, 2020, reminded us of the importance and power of home visits. She says that as educators we must “be willing to make mistakes, take chances and strive to learn about the child from making home visits. It is not a customary thing for educators to make home visits unless there is an issue. I don’t wait for problems, I just contact the families and ask that we meet to exchange ways we could collaborate in support of their child.”

I hope you can sense the energy from my call with these amazing educators. Each was selected for the Toyota Family Teacher of the Year award for their commitment to building trusting relationships with families and welcoming learning environments that honor families’ diversity and cultures, as well as their skills in fostering community partnerships in support of families. These are all traits that the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement (NAFSCE) recently identified as core competencies in family engagement.

NCFL Ambassador badge

Now, these educators are coming together as a network of teacher leaders to form the first cohort of NCFL Family Learning Ambassadors.

As NCFL Family Learning Ambassadors, they are helping us amplify the message of our 60X30 Vision and their experiences as local leaders. Creating learning opportunities for children and families, beyond the school ways, is a cornerstone for establishing a strong Family Learning System, where educators and the community meet families where they are and create aligned and coherent multigenerational learning opportunities.

As we look ahead, please join me in following the work of our NCFL Family Learning Ambassadors. Our Ambassadors will be participating in the virtual portion of our conference as well as attending the Nashville Regional Meetup on November 4th. And, throughout the school year we intend to host opportunities where they can share their learning and expertise. The hallmark of a learning community is that the community learns together. 

Please stay on the lookout for additional information about these opportunities.

Meantime, if you’re looking for new strategies and resources to inform your work with and alongside families, please register to attend the 2022 Families Learning Conference, a hybrid event held virtually October 25-26 and in-person November 4th in Nashville and December 2nd in Phoenix. We hope you’ll join 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.