Responsive Co-creation: NCFL’s Family Literacy Model in Action

Editor’s Note: In 2022 and 2023, Colorado was awarded two Statewide Family Engagement Center (SFEC) federal grants. One of these grants includes National Center for Families Learning (NCFL) as the lead fiscal agent alongside three partners: Colorado Education Initiative (CEI), Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition (CSPC), and Black Parent Network (BPN), in collaboration with the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) as the project advisor. CEI is the lead state agency for the grant. CEI Director of Family Community Partnership, Laura Harney, recently traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska to experience one of NCFL’s grant programs, Family Literacy, in action. She shares her thoughts on this experience below.

CEI believes in creating open systems where school districts are hubs of democracy and responsive to the needs of their unique communities. As we close out year one of the five-year Colorado Statewide Family Engagement Center (CO SFEC) grant, we are hopeful about how this funding can strengthen family, school, and community partnerships across the state.

As Director of Family and Community Partnership at CEI, my role in the CO SFEC is to provide training and technical assistance to five school districts across the state and help actualize the theory of action that grounds the CO SFEC’s work:

If we:

  • Establish a strong governing council led by Colorado families and organizations;
  • Build stakeholder capacity through professional learning, leadership development, and high-impact programs to create an effective and equitable continuum of practices;
  • Co-create solutions alongside families to improve student outcomes;
  • Enhance the local and state policy environment to strengthen family, school, and community engagement;

Then the CO SFEC will affect Colorado families by offering high-impact cradle-to-career family, school, and community engagement to increase student opportunities, family well-being, and student academic achievement.

One of the components of the grant is for NCFL’s family literacy program to be implemented in five Colorado school districts. The family literacy model is a federally recognized program written into legislation that’s been implemented in states across the country for 35 years, and includes four components with the following hourly recommendations:

  • Parent and child time (1+ hours weekly)
  • Children’s education (During school hours)
  • Parent time (1-2 hours weekly)
  • Adult education (2+ hours weekly)

When I first saw these expectations, I was surprised by the intensity of the program for families and cautious about the feasibility of schools coordinating these efforts. Then, I saw it in action. In October 2023, I traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska for a site visit at Campbell Elementary School to learn more about how schools implement the four components of the family literacy framework.

During the visit, I watched as nearly 10 caregivers arrived at the school with confidence and entered a beautiful classroom, decorated with personal touches. They experienced an English class with a welcoming instructor and a community of other adult learners. Then, they went to their children’s classrooms and observed.

What happened in the debrief was remarkable. Caregivers of varying English proficiency sat in a circle and shared what they saw happening in the classroom. They discussed how their students were learning about ancient Egypt and solving math problems, and the questions they could ask their children at home. They also shared their concerns that students were sitting on a dirty carpet and touching their faces and suggested solutions to the issues: Students could wash their hands more often or the school could provide individual rugs and indoor slippers for each student. The instructor offered to join the parent to share and discuss these ideas with the teacher later that day. I watched families who often may not feel welcome in a school and are navigating a new culture and language feel empowered to ask for support to help make their students safe, well, and ready to learn every day.

What I saw is a powerful example of the dual-capacity framework in action that is designed for families who are often left out of co-creation. Caregivers were learning skills and better understanding their children’s educational journey, and the school was learning skills and better understanding how to become a safer, more welcoming environment. As a former district leader, I recognize how challenging it can be to identify what families are interested in and to coordinate efforts in a way that has an actual impact on family wellbeing through a 2Gen approach. NCFL has long recognized this as they have been leading national multi-generational educational efforts for 34 years. Family literacy offers a framework to bring together critical elements of family and school partnerships in a way that builds learning infrastructures, such as adult education, in a K-12 education setting. NCFL has reported that families who participate in its family literacy model experienced decreased student absenteeism, increased student achievement, positive changes in parental educational involvement, and parental progress towards learning and workforce goals.  All of these demonstrated gains make me hopeful for the potential of the program’s impact in Colorado communities.

This experience made me consider that as members of K-12 education, we may need to shift our thinking from tiered systems of support (often focusing on tier 1 or universal strategies) and begin by designing alongside those who are most often left behind. It highlighted the curb-cut effect and the idea that when we design alongside those who are most impacted, universal impact follows.

I left Campbell Elementary School as a believer in its potential and hopeful about how it can be a model that creates positive outcomes for all those involved. Changing systemic injustice and shifting poverty takes a drastic reimaging of resources and spaces, and, while implementing family literacy programs is a complex process, I can see its potential for helping us reimagine and practice a multi-generational approach in K-12 education. I am excited to learn alongside school districts in Colorado as they engage in the challenging work of building and managing this framework in their own unique context over the next four years as part of the CO SFEC partnership.


Colorado Education Initiative (CEI) is a nonprofit organization that currently partners with 100 school districts across Colorado as an implementation expert, strategic partner, and statewide convener to cultivate stronger educational outcomes and advance public education across the state.

Laura Harney is the Director of Family and Community Partnership at CEI.

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