At the Heart of Family Learning: When families go beyond “just taking services”

The past several months have been filled with excitement and a lot of travel to see NCFL’s work in action across the country. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit a Family and Child Education (FACE) site at Chief Leschi Elementary School in Puyallup, Washington. Funded by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) and designed as a family literacy program for Indigenous families, FACE integrates language and culture to better prepare children for schools in tribal communities. NCFL has had a strong partnership with the BIE for over three decades and currently supports FACE programs in 54 schools across multiple states. Chief Leschi Schools is a great example of the power of local programming to enhance family literacy and family engagement while meeting the needs of both parenting adults and children.

While at the site, I was able to meet a number of parenting adults who were participating in multigenerational learning through FACE alongside their children. One participant, a 19-year-old young man, described to me the ways in which his high school experience was disrupted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. With limited access to mentors, career guidance, and out-of-school workforce development programs, he felt he had fewer opportunities to explore what he wanted for his future. He tried college for a year, but decided after a semester that it wasn’t the best option for him at the time. Instead, he expressed a desire to better understand his passions and gifts and find a career path that would engage those gifts while also enabling him to support his young family. 

He first came to FACE programming, at their local elementary school, as a way to ensure his daughter was succeeding academically. Once there, though, he discovered a network of teachers and other adult learners who were working toward academic and economic goals not just for their children, but for the whole family. Through FACE, he found opportunities to explore new skills, gain greater confidence, and connect with a social network of parents striving to make a difference by achieving personal goals and providing support for their children.. 

A few weeks later, I traveled to the East Coast for another FACE visit. I met with participants and senior leaders from Cherokee Central School in Cherokee, North Carolina. One participant, a grandmother, was supporting the third generation of her family through family literacy programming. She and her daughter had been through the program together when she was a young mother, and now she and her granddaughter were attending together. FACE had provided a through-line for her family, making it possible for multiple generations to access the learning experiences, tools, and resources that lead to family well-being and success. This social network, established through FACE programming, has created the bonds necessary for families to feel supported across multiple generations. 

For over 35-years, NCFL has been working alongside partners and communities to provide family literacy services, like the FACE program, across a variety of contexts and communities. As these two examples demonstrate, NCFL’s efforts to build deep community relationships that advance family well-being and success have created greater access and opportunity for families to thrive. This family success leads to hope and self-actualization and represents the first steps towards creating a legacy of learning that can last generations. 

In a recent talk, Dr. Donnie Ray Hale Jr, Southern Regional Deputy Director for the Coalition for Community Schools, shared a statement that strongly resonated with me: “There is a pathway out of poverty, but it occurs beyond just taking services or solely engaging in a program.” I interpreted this in two ways. First, that every family deserves access and opportunities to the basic necessities that many service programs provide. And second, that those services in and of themselves are often not sufficient to make a long-term difference in a family’s economic trajectory. Changing that trajectory for a single family requires the kind of intensive effort made possible through multigenerational programming like family literacy. Changing the trajectory for whole communities requires something even more profound: breaking down the silos in which services exist and creating systems change that aligns and coordinates those services to strengthen connectedness and improve access for all families, including those furthest from opportunity. This is the vision NCFL has for the future working alongside communities: to establish coordinated and aligned family learning systems, built with and for families, to increase education and economic outcomes and create more equitable communities.

This is the work at the heart of the Family Learning Communities NCFL is developing alongside partners across the country. We invite you to join with us in this important effort. To learn more, visit familieslearning.org.