“Grit, Grace, and Gratitude”: The origins of NCFL

Grit, Grace, and Gratitude: A 30-Year Journey” shares how one woman’s desire to teach adults to read turned into a nationwide movement to lift families out of poverty. Published in November 2019, the book shares the important and inspiring story of the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL).

Over the course of the next month, NCFL will share select passages from “Grit, Grace, and Gratitude.” The first passage describes the origins of family literacy, recounting how NCFL’s president and founder, Sharon Darling, created the Parent and Child Education (PACE) program in Kentucky in 1986. Within just three years, PACE became a national model, earning the Innovations in American Government Award from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. NCFL was established the same year.

“But one of the challenges is that people don’t acknowledge the parents’ needs first.” Sharon equates the idea with the use of an oxygen mask on an airplane. “If you’re on an airplane and seated next to a child, when those oxygen masks drop from the ceiling, the instructions are to put the mask on your face first, before you help your child. Likewise, parents need support first to help their children. In the past it had always been early childhood programs trying to lure the parents into programs—when in fact, recruiting parents into programs first, and bringing the children in alongside them, has made the difference.”

There were numerous research studies at the time to attribute children’s academic success to the education level of the mother; given the 70% dropout rate in regions of Kentucky, it made even more sense to focus on parents, knowing that the impact on children would come naturally. Eastern Kentucky’s Appalachian counties with the highest incidence of adult undereducation and unemployment became the priority. PACE worked to bring these families to school together to learn, to have positive school experiences, and to discover that education is important.

“The only way I knew to do that, because transportation was such an issue,” Sharon shared in a 2018 interview, “was to bring parents and children to school together on the school bus. Kentucky legislature funded six programs, and I was able to demonstrate how this might work. So, the three- and four-year-old children came, the parents were right next door, and then we really started to understand that this concept was very powerful, and that it was making a huge difference for both the parents and the children. Families started to learn what they could do at home, and they started to bond together—even within their isolated rural communities, they started to see themselves as a group and helped each other along.”

Grit, Grace, and Gratitude tells powerful stories of families who gained knowledge, courage, and confidence to pursue educational and career goals—often against all odds—and through their own perseverance not only survived but thrived. To order your printed copy of “Grit, Grace, and Gratitude: A 30-Year Journey”, click here. To purchase the ebook edition, click here.