Family engagement is the key to Kentucky’s long-term education and workforce success

This blog post is authored by NCFL’s President, Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith in honor of Kentucky Family Engagement in Education Week. Click here to read about activities happening across the state. 

The United States public education system, including right here in Kentucky, is beginning to fully understand the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on student learning outcomes. McKinsey & Company’s 2020 study on the pandemic’s implications for today’s young people reports that Black and Brown students will suffer the greatest educational and social-emotional consequences (E. Dorn, B. Hancock, J. Sarakatsannis, E. Viruleg, 2020). These effects threaten to harm important progress toward building a diverse and well-prepared workforce of employees across our nation’s communities.
Having dedicated my career to providing high quality, equitable education for all Kentucky students, the prospect of widening opportunity gaps keeps me up at night. I continue to contemplate how we can best serve our state’s future generations in an ever-changing world.

For me, I’ve realized now more than ever, it all comes down to a school’s connection to its students, families, and to the broader community. I have witnessed firsthand that when families are engaged in their children’s education, students are much more likely to overcome challenges and achieve long-term life success. It is urgent and imperative for our state to build inclusive and collaborative family-school partnerships to maximize learning impact beyond school walls. This is the primary way to fortify Kentucky’s future workforce prosperity and strong thriving communities. The future of learning is in communities where there should be dynamic and innovative learning systems in place.

As the new President of the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL), I am thrilled to see connected, statewide efforts committed to strengthening family-school partnerships in Kentucky’s communities large and small. This week, the Kentucky Collaborative for Families and Schools is celebrating successful family engagement practices and strategies to deepen the conversation around this work and promote awareness of what it looks like in different communities. This example of true collaboration and collective action requires incredible coordination from schools, government, community-based organizations, and most importantly, Kentucky’s students and families.

Further, I was excited to participate in the Kentucky Department of Education’s recent 2021 Summit where Commissioner Dr. Jason Glass, shared his vision for our state’s public education system. It is centered on the importance of student and family voice in education. We need more of this work happening across our state—and more funds directed to it—most critically in less-resourced districts and in those that serve a higher percentage of students who are furthest from opportunity to address racial and economic inequities. The future of Kentucky’s workforce is dependent upon fulfilling a vision that starts in public education.

This work is local work. Family engagement and learning opportunities need to be designed to meet the diverse and multi-faceted needs of Kentucky communities. NCFL has been privileged to advance family engagement work across the nation but also in our Louisville community through a multi-year partnership with Jefferson County Public School (JCPS) district. This work enabled us to quickly respond and reach families when schools switched to a fully remote environment in spring 2020. Having developed deep relationships with both JCPS personnel and JCPS families, the team convened town halls and distributed learning resources and information quickly and effectively.  We worked with JCPS school-based parent leaders as trusted messengers in their communities during a time of confusion and dramatic disruption. If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that so many families face daily barriers to being engaged with their schools. Family engagement directly addresses this problem by creating new solutions and agile practices.
The Kentucky Chamber Foundation’s 2021 report,20 Years in the Making: Kentucky’s Workforce Crisis, outlines the state’s workforce challenges and offers solutions in relationship to families, family engagement, and family learning that will support a strong economy. In order to reduce the racial and geographic disparities in continuing education options and postsecondary attainment rates we must provide learning opportunities that engage families and result in equitable student outcomes from birth through adulthood. NCFL believes this requires deep coordination of all community members and institutions to create comprehensive family learning systems that strengthen family-school partnerships and extend learning beyond school walls.

Despite these challenges we are facing as a Commonwealth, I am hopeful and excited that NCFL is working with fellow partners such as Jefferson County Public Schools, the Kentucky Department of Education, and the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence to support every Kentucky student’s future through research-based, transformative family engagement and learning experiences. Bolstering family engagement and learning in Kentucky’s education system is the single biggest lever we have for mitigating long-term negative impacts on our children’s academic and social-emotional success. Join me in responding to our renewed commitment to family-school partnerships by serving as an advocate for education and workforce success through stronger family engagement, family literacy, and family leadership efforts. This is our collective responsibility.