Darling: Extend learning beyond school walls

Sharon Darling

Lupe Maldonado and her family came to this country with nothing more than a dream. The Maldonados were short on worldly possessions, but strong on hope.

It wasn’t until Lupe came upon a two-generation family learning program free to participants at her son’s school that her life began to change.

“Beyond English, I learned how to help my sons with their education, gained job skills and put them all together to create a better life for us,” she said. Today, she and her husband are proud homeowners, have become United States citizens and have graduated one son from college, with another working on his degree.

Stories like these run rampant across 56 communities in the U.S. where the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL) and partner Toyota Motor North America have impacted over 2 million families the past 25 years.

The most recent installment of this partnership involves Toyota Family Learning, taking place here and 14 other cities; it meets vulnerable families where they are, extending learning and education beyond school walls. Toyota Family Learning demonstrates learning that can, and should, happen everywhere, and at any age.

Through Family Service Learning, participating adults learn relevant workforce training skills in the laboratory of their own community. Children participating in Family Service Learning are able to see the application of their education firsthand on their own pathway to success. Also, they are more likely to grow up and serve their own communities by following their parents’ example. NCFL’s approach to Family Service Learning empowers families to become a part of the solution to their own communities’ problems.

Such is the case locally, where Toyota Family Learning—in partnership with Southwest Counseling Solutions—kicked the program off last year at Escuela Avancemos Academy and Harms Elementary School. Participating adults used problem-solving and critical thinking skills to address and determine their service project. Children worked with their parents to help plan and carry out the service-learning project and tackle the identified issues. The result: cleaning up and planting a community garden at a neighborhood school, organizing a book carnival for local children and distributing handmade scarves and food to the homeless.

While the Toyota/NCFL model has proven successful, we have a long way to go. How do we spread this two-generation initiative to not just 56 communities, but triple that amount? The answer: more public (schools/libraries/non-profit organizations) and private partnerships. Private resources present the best opportunities to fuel innovation.

Toyota has invested more than $46 million to fund 286 two-generation family literacy sites in 31 states. $300 million has been leveraged for sustained/expanded programming. Many other corporations have stepped up to the plate in the support of education. But, we need more—specifically aimed at this two-generation solution to educational challenges. With it, schools and communities witness first-hand that educational achievement pays for itself.

The most recent Toyota/NCFL program has proven very successful. Results of an independent evaluation from Penn State University, reporting on participants in 2015-16 Toyota Family Learning programs in 15 cities and at 30 sites, include:

■94 percent became a better parent for their child

■79 percent improved English skills

■47 percent upgraded skills to keep current job

■40 percent got a better job

■Families practiced 34 out of 42 important employability skills

■28 percent obtained the knowledge necessary to pass the U.S. citizenship test

■29 percent earned a GED certificate or high school equivalency

This approach empowers parents to gain many employability skills -- in areas such as technology, English language, self-efficacy, interpersonal, communications, problem-solving, and time management.

And for folks like Lupe Maldonado and her family, it does much more; it is an avenue to reaching one’s dreams and aspirations.

Sharon Darling is president and founder of National Center for Families Learning.