Column: Family literacy improves learning

Sharon Darling

You can see the pride in Lourdes Valdivia’s eyes when she talks about her three sons, ages 3, 9 and 11. Each weekday morning, she and her boys walk through the doors of Harms Elementary in Southwest Detroit. The children head to their classrooms, but it’s not the last they’ll see of their mom during the school day. That’s because Valdivia participates in a program that allows her to both learn English and how to better support her sons’ education. And, Valdivia will tell you her time in the classroom has helped her children be better students.

It may sound like a no-brainer — being an engaged parent leads to better academic outcomes for children. But this Detroit program — which is based on the National Center for Families Learning’s family literacy model — is making a big impact. Children whose families participated in the program were absent 12 days fewer than students of parents not participating, according to a recent study. That’s more than two weeks per school year these students are in their classrooms learning. Those not in the program were absent nearly a month per year. If that attendance rate continues from kindergarten, those chronically absent students will have missed a full school years’ worth of days by ninth grade than students in the family literacy program.

Chronic absenteeism is an issue across the country, but it’s a major problem in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which holds Michigan’s lowest status for daily attendance. Detroit students attend roughly four out of five school days. This problem exacerbates poor academic achievement. Less than 1-in-3 students is proficient in reading (at their respective level) according to the district’s 2016 testing data.

Harms Elementary Principal Mauro Cruz sees it every day and says “students who spend more time in the classroom see more achievements throughout their academic career. We see a huge difference in attitude and motivation in students of families in the family learning program.”

The NCFL model leverages technology as parents and children learn together and serve their communities through Family Service Learning projects, Parent Time, and Parent and Child Together Time. Parents actually spend time in the classroom with their children. In addition to gaining skills to help their children succeed in and outside the classroom, parents also build important technology, language, literacy, and job skills.

Harms Elementary isn’t the only location seeing results from family literacy. For the first time, a group of organizations and funders have committed to a common agenda for Detroit in order to make a collective impact to enhance the learning of young elementary students who are Hispanic/Latino. The focus exists, because, nationally, 11 percent fewer Hispanic/Latino students graduate from high school than their white, non-Hispanic peers.

The work of NCFL, United Way for Southeastern Michigan, Southwest Solutions, and DPSCD is mutually reinforcing. It is backed by funding from the National and Community Services’ Social Innovation Fund, Toyota, PNC, Skillman Foundation, and others. The family literacy model, created by NCFL, has been implemented in four Detroit schools, including Munger, Maybury, Lighthouse and Harms elementary, serving more than 80 families.

While the NCFL model has proven successful, we have a long way to go. Consider the impact on Detroit families and future generations if the model was in all 70 DPSCD elementary schools. In order for that to happen, we need more public (schools, libraries, nonprofits) and private partnerships specifically aimed at this two-generation model. Private/corporate resources present the best opportunities to fuel innovation.

And we need more of it specifically aimed at this two-generation solution to educational challenges because the data shows it works. Research shows the major predictor of a child’s academic success is the mother’s education level. By elevating the mother at the same time as the children, the NCFL family literacy model has the ability to change a family’s trajectory. That’s something that will impact generations to come.

Imagine the possibilities if all schools offered the program. Evaluations completed at the beginning and end of the school year showed that while the students started out on an equal playing field, those whose parents participated in family literacy made substantial gains in areas such as working collaboratively, communicating effectively and learning how to learn. They welcomed exploration, gained increasingly complex problem-solving, and had a more confident disposition to learning.

Valdivia sees the results every day. Her older boys have raised their grades and are doing better socially. Her family’s not alone. As Cruz said, “family literacy is making a clear impact on our schools and we hope to see the program spread and more families engaged in the coming years.”

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