Charter schools could be new tool for families

This post is co-authored by Sharon Darling, president and founder of the National Center for Families Learning and Christie McKay, executive director of Briya Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.

Growing up with an alcoholic, abusive father in a small Mexican town, Alejandra wanted a better life. Her only hope, she thought, was to move to America with her new husband, and, hopefully, provide that better life for her future children.

It wasn’t easy. Her parents didn’t approve, she didn’t know a word of English, and she was several thousand miles away from her family and friends, living in a new country with an unfamiliar culture.

But Alejandra persevered, and she found support in a unique family literacy program at Briya Public Charter School in Washington D.C. There, the mother of three attends school with her youngest child, 18-month-old Isai. They are two of over 650 adults and children who learn together at Briya. This singular educational experience has empowered Alejandra and her children to succeed.

Briya is ranked as a Tier 1 High Performing School in adult education by the D.C. Public Charter School Board. And while over half of Briya’s preschool students enter below widely held expectations, 97 to 100 percent meet or exceed those expectations upon leaving the program, effectively eliminating the achievement gap by the time they enter kindergarten.

As Alejandra’s experience at Briya demonstrates, family literacy works for charter schools because it promotes strong family engagement and provides accessible education that is tailored to the needs of vulnerable populations. Briya’s family literacy program, which began in 1989, was strengthened through a partnership with the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL) over 20 years ago. NCFL continues to work with groups like Briya to maximize life outcomes for families by providing two-generation education solutions.

“Briya is an excellent example of how an innovative approach engages parents and children to impact the family as a whole,” said Sharon Darling, president and founder of NCFL. “Not only do parents and children come to school to learn together, but they leave with the necessary skills to do well in school and in life.”

In Briya’s program, parents learn English, practical technology, and parenting skills. At the same time, their young children prepare for future school success in infant, toddler, and preschool classes right across the hall.

And parents and children do not remain in separate silos. Instead, they come together at least once a week for intentional family learning, known as Parent and Child Together (PACT) Time®, a defining element of Briya and other family literacy programs.

NCFL developed the concept of PACT Time and has examined its implementation among diverse parents and children across the country for over 20 years. PACT Time has been consistently affirmed as an essential strategy to maximize the benefits of families learning together.

At Briya, after learning about a topic related to children’s development, parents go into their child’s classroom to put their learning immediately into action during PACT Time. Guided by the early childhood teachers, parents practice interactive activities with their children that they can later replicate at home.

For example, after learning how helping children express their emotions enables them to work successfully with others in school, a parent goes into her child’s preschool classroom to play a guessing game of acting out feelings and discussing what makes people feel that way. Or, after learning how children develop early literacy skills, a parent goes into her toddler’s classroom and does a scavenger hunt for letters of the child’s name—a game they can later play on their walk to school.

Briya has the flexibility to implement this unique two-generation model as a D.C. public charter school. A strength of well-structured charter law is that it allows schools to be creative and tailor their approach to the needs of the specific population they serve, and Briya is able to do this for immigrant parents and children in Washington, D.C.

Because D.C.’s charter school law includes adult and preschool students, Briya has a stable source of per-pupil funding, which allows the school to provide education to those who are most in need. Ninety-seven percent of Briya families are living in poverty, and adult students in Briya’s entry-level English classes have, on average, just six years of previous education.

And the strict standards and accountability measures put in place by the D.C. Public Charter School Board ensure that Briya and other charters are truly meeting the needs of the students they serve.

Alejandra sees the impact Briya’s early childhood program made on her daughter, Anely, 5, who attended as a toddler. “She learned how to socialize, how to interact with her classmates and teachers. And she learned how to separate her from me. Her transition [to elementary school] was easier because of this.”

Alejandra pointed to her own growth as well, noting her English skills help her communicate with teachers, and she serves as a parent ambassador at her older children’s elementary school.

She’s come a long way from that little town in Mexico.

“My life and the lives of my children have changed for the better because of this program,” she says.