A Report From The Literacy Front

Sandra Santy, a member of the volunteer board of directors of the Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven, sent in the following account of a conference that she attended on behalf of the Coalition.

I was honored to represent the Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven at the 2014 Families Learning Summit and National Conference on Family Literacy in Washington, D.C. for two-plus days in February. The conference was presented by the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL), formerly known as the National Center for Family Literacy, a national nonprofit organization committed to helping adults and children learn together. The lead sponsor was Toyota, which partnered with NCFL in 2003 to create the Toyota Family Literacy program. This program increases basic language and literacy skills with Hispanic and other immigrant families by bringing parents into their children’s classrooms. The Toyota and NCFL partnership has benefited more than 50 communities and 30 states.

The conference featured sessions by the Literacy Funders Network and the Urban Libraries Council, and hosted national speakers in the fields of parent education, immigrant families, and literacy trends, as well as student speakers, authors, and advocates. Promoted as an everyday learning opportunity for children and families, the audience consisted of teachers, education advocates and leaders, policy makers, and families from across the country.

NCFL President and Founder Sharon Darling opened the conference describing the organization’s history, accomplishments and challenges. The need for positive family literacy and engagement experiences is great and requires more than identifying needs and planning programs for dual generation learning. She says, “We must track what works and why it’s so effective.”

I attended an in-depth session called “Then and Now: How to Implement a Goal-Linked Program of Family and Community Engagement for Student Achievement and Behavior,” with an audience of teachers and administrators. Dr. Joyce Epstein, Director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University, led us in group activities aimed at setting tangible goals and overcoming barriers to real partnerships between schools and families.  As a well-known expert in this field, Dr. Epstein has worked with the CT State Department of Education staff to help practitioners learn how to make connections by identifying goals and strategies that lead to successful partnerships.

Bonnie Lash Freeman (NCFL Senior Training Specialist) presented “Executive Function: Does It Influence Our Work in Family Literacy and Family Learning?”  Based on research from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, executive function refers to skills for life and learning. The foundation for a skilled workforce, a constructive community, and a healthy economy is built by early childhood experiences. Freeman described the brain’s ability to hold competing thoughts, work with information streaming in and out, and focus thinking, as similar to an air traffic controller, who is able to manage multiple departures and arrivals of different airplanes on various runways. Critical factors affecting executive function and self-regulation in children include positive relationships, healthy activities, and “safe places” where they can play, learn and live.

An afternoon panel of experts tacked the issue of Common Core: “Has the Standards Movement Forgotten Families? Reclaiming the Family-School Partnerships for College and Career Readiness?” Moderated by USA Today’s national education reporter Greg Toppo, the panel included Jonathan Brice from the U.S. Department of Education, Dr. Joyce Epstein, and author/consultant Christopher Lehman, together discussing the Common Core standards. With many educators and school administrators in the audience, the discussion was lively and loud, ranging from Epstein’s call for goal-linked parent engagement to Lehman’s comments about increasing stress on teachers, parents and children.

One of the best sessions I participated in featured Lucas Held, Director of Communications at the Wallace Foundation, and Jeff Rosenberg, VP, Advocacy & Social Marketing at Crosby Marketing, discussing “Engaging with Urban Parents on Education: Lessons Learned from a Five-City Demonstration.” This session covered the successes and challenges in a 5-city social marketing campaign to engage parents and children. The National Summer Learning Demonstration Project and Study focused on the question: Can summer learning programs in public school districts 1) Combat summer learning loss? 2) Improve educational outcomes and social competency? 3) Potentially reduce the achievement gap?  I was impressed that the findings addressed the real work of parent engagement, not just talking about its importance, but rather outlining the strategy to engage parents through guaranteeing accessibility of materials, sustained recruitment, personalized outreach and relationship marketing.  One lesson learned in this project is that the more complex a certain behavior (for example, student attendance in summer program), the more difficult it is to motivate that behavior, and the more likely it is that external forces will challenge progress. (I am happy to share the PowerPoint presentation with anyone interested.)

Holly Robinson Peete was the highlighted speaker at Tuesday’s lunch. Daughter of the original “Gordon” on Sesame Street, she is an actress, parent, education advocate and founder of the HollyRod Foundation. Founded in 1997 by Holly and her NFL quarterback husband Rodney Peete, the Foundation’s mission is to offer help and hope through compassionate care to families living with autism and Parkinson’s disease. Holly’s father suffered from Parkinson’s disease and she and her husband have a son with autism. Her wonderful presentation helped raised awareness for education, outreach and support for families dealing with these issues.

Other luncheon speakers included Toyota’s VP of Diversity, Philanthropy and Community Affairs Michael Rouse, who highlighted the Toyota Family Learning Grant program that awarded funding ($175,000 over 3 years) to five family literacy communities, located in Providence, Rhode Island; San Pedro, California; Houston, Texas; Lincoln, Nevada; and Bronx, New York. He also announced the 2014 Family Teacher of the Year, Elizabeth Atack from the Nashville Public Library, for her work in bringing families into the learning process.

I listened to a group of coordinators, students, and teachers involved with a DC Toyota Family Literacy program. Student Ikise Walker spoke about his success in the program, which employs a comprehensive and family-centered approach in its services. The four program components include adult education, children’s education, parent time, and PACT (Parent and Child Together). This social change model demonstrates the positive intersection of health care, social services, and education – and is similar to the New Haven Public Schools’ wrap-around services implemented throughout the system.

I heard R. J. Palacio, author of the best-selling children’s novel Wonder, talk about the unlikely success of her book.  I talked to parents and teachers about their experiences with family learning. I listened to educators talk about digital media helping parents support student learning in new ways. I met CT administrators and librarians involved in exciting projects for families in our state.

After two-plus days of attending sessions, listening to experts and practitioners in the field, and networking with others involved with family learning across the country, I was impressed at the breadth and depth of the conference’s content. Much attention was focused on outreach efforts to engage underserved communities, and speakers and participants described hands-on activities that help inspire parents and families to learn together—as we aim to do at LiteracyEveryday.

I learned a great deal at this conference and am happy to share more information.  (Please contact info@literacyeveryday.org.)

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