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Aug 25, 2022 |

Greetings to the NCFL community of families, educators, and practitioners. After taking a break in July, I’m eager to resume my monthly blog, just in time for the start of school! This time of year is always exciting for me as I think about what a new year offers for potential learning opportunities, hope for deeper engagement with families, and enriching partnerships with community stakeholders to advance learning in communities. But, I know how hard the last two years have been for educators so I want to use this platform to celebrate educators across the country who are showing up daily—in spite of the challenges—and remaining focused on improving learning outcomes and engaging families. 

In my post this month, I’m highlighting outstanding educators committed to deepening their partnerships with families. Toyota Family Teachers of the Year are a special group of educators who serve parents, caregivers, and children using a strong multi-generational approach to learning and who focus on building effective family–school partnerships that support student achievement and school improvement. Their leadership and advocacy in their districts and local communities have transformed how parents and caregivers positively reflect a commitment to family engagement. Family engagement is an essential pillar of a Family Learning System, acting as a bridge across schools, homes, and communities.

Graphic with Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith's headshot and a red ribbon in the shape of a heart. The text reads At the Heart of Family Learning with Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting with many of these educators to learn about their plans for the upcoming school year.

Carolyn Blocker, 2013 winner of the Toyota Family Teacher of the Year, expressed with fervor how hard she has worked to gather buy-in from principals in her district to invest more in family engagement practices. She knows how impactful it is to have parents as partners in order to achieve student success so she plans to “double down” on her efforts this school year.

Zoom call with educators and NCFL staff
Dr. Smith's recent Zoom call with past Toyota Family Teachers of the Year

Kristen Whitaker, 2015, shared that she’s looking forward to engaging families in virtual reality (VR) in order to enhance and support learning in new, innovative ways. She expressed, “There is so much potential in bringing VR to classrooms across the country; immersive technologies can boost student access, opportunities, and engagement, and shape learning in classrooms, communities, and the workplace.” I’m excited for her presentation at the 2022 Families Learning Conference, where she’ll moderate a panel of creators, students, and teachers on how to use VR to enhance the education experience and social-emotional learning.

Manoucheka Dolcine, 2021, said she’ll place her energy, focus, and advocacy on working with parents, particularly English language learners, as well as teen parents. Her commitment to working with parents and caregivers who have been historically marginalized drives her day-to-day efforts. As the most recent Toyota Family Teacher of the Year, she’s currently carrying out her award project which is to create a Literacy Resource Room at her school to support students, children, and families with computers and books, as well as with workshops and trainings on topics relevant to their needs.

Liz Atack, 2014, is feeling excited that over 60 family workshops are on her library’s schedule for the coming year—before the start of school (and without any advertising). She says, “It’s a good reminder that our work [at the Nashville Public Library] is meaningful not only to the schools and organizations with which we partner, but to their families as well.” 

Katy Kibbey, 2008, said that she’s looking forward to working with a local nonprofit in her home state of Michigan as they build out their afterschool College Success program for recent high school graduates and their families. She provides consulting for the program, which offers monthly coaching services to help students and their families have a successful first year of college.

Leila Kubesch, 2020, reminded us of the importance and power of home visits. She says that as educators we must “be willing to make mistakes, take chances and strive to learn about the child from making home visits. It is not a customary thing for educators to make home visits unless there is an issue. I don't wait for problems, I just contact the families and ask that we meet to exchange ways we could collaborate in support of their child.”

I hope you can sense the energy from my call with these amazing educators. Each was selected for the Toyota Family Teacher of the Year award for their commitment to building trusting relationships with families and welcoming learning environments that honor families’ diversity and cultures, as well as their skills in fostering community partnerships in support of families. These are all traits that the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement (NAFSCE) recently identified as core competencies in family engagement.

NCFL Ambassador badge

Now, these educators are coming together as a network of teacher leaders to form the first cohort of NCFL Family Learning Ambassadors.

As NCFL Family Learning Ambassadors, they are helping us amplify the message of our 60X30 Vision and their experiences as local leaders. Creating learning opportunities for children and families, beyond the school ways, is a cornerstone for establishing a strong Family Learning System, where educators and the community meet families where they are and create aligned and coherent multigenerational learning opportunities.

As we look ahead, please join me in following the work of our NCFL Family Learning Ambassadors. Our Ambassadors will be participating in the virtual portion of our conference as well as attending the Nashville Regional Meetup on November 4th. And, throughout the school year we intend to host opportunities where they can share their learning and expertise. The hallmark of a learning community is that the community learns together. 

Please stay on the lookout for additional information about these opportunities.

Meantime, if you’re looking for new strategies and resources to inform your work with and alongside families, please register to attend the 2022 Families Learning Conference, a hybrid event held virtually October 25-26 and in-person November 4th in Nashville and December 2nd in Phoenix. We hope you’ll join us!


Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith

A lifelong educator and national thought leader for teaching and learning, Dr. Felicia C. Smith brings decades of valuable experience to advance NCFL’s mission of working to eradicate poverty through education solutions for families. Having served in a variety of leadership roles in P-12, higher education, nonprofit, and philanthropy, her career has allowed her to experience leading systems and develop a unique vantage point of a learner’s educational trajectory from preschool to adulthood. Smith holds an Ed.D. in education leadership and administration from the University of Kentucky, and an M.A. in elementary education with an emphasis on K-12 literacy development and B.S. in elementary education from the University of Louisville. 

Follow Dr. Felicia C. Smith on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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NCFL Partners

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Toyota, one of the nation's most successful corporations, began a partnership with NCFL in 1991. In addition to a commitment of more than $50 million, Toyota has also contributed a wealth of in-kind support — including advertising, planning and management expertise — to form one of the most progressive corporate/nonprofit partnerships in the nation.

Three major programs have been developed through the Toyota partnership based on the family literacy model of parents and children learning together. These models have influenced federal and state legislation, leveraged local dollars to support family literacy and led to successful programs being replicated across the country.

Read more about Toyota's commitment to communities

William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust

NCFL received its very first donation in 1989 from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust to promote and implement family literacy programming, first in Kentucky and North Carolina and later nationwide. The Kenan Family Literacy Model in part laid the groundwork for 30 years of subsequent family literacy and family learning programming developed by NCFL.

Kenan has continued to support NCFL’s place-based family literacy programs since our inception. Most recently, it has invested in our organization’s Sharon Darling Innovation Fund, which will launch emerging ideas and programmatic evolutions in the multigenerational learning space.

Learn more about the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust

Dollar General Literacy Foundation

The Dollar General Literacy Foundation began partnering with NCFL in 2006. A signature effort of this partnership is the National Literacy Directory, a resource that launched in 2010 and strives to guide potential students and volunteers to literacy services, community education programs, and testing centers in their communities.

The National Literacy Directory contains over 10,000 educational agencies located across the United States and has a dedicated toll-free number to help support those wanting to pursue educational opportunities in their communities.

Dollar General also provides support for development of NCFL’s innovative family learning resources centered on financial literacy and Parent and Child Together (PACT) Time®.

Learn more about the Dollar General Literacy Foundation

PNC Grow Up Great

PNC Grow Up Great believes deeply in the power of high-quality early childhood education and provides innovative opportunities that assist families, educators and community organizations to enhance children's learning and development.

PNC Grow Up Great has partnered with NCFL since 1994, most recently in Louisville, Kentucky, to support Say & Play with Words, our pre-Kindergarten vocabulary-building initiative.

NCFL's work is also featured on the PNC Grow Up Great Lesson Center website. The Lesson Center includes over 100 free, high-quality preschool lesson plans and research-based instructional techniques and strategies. All lesson plans contain Home/School Connections printouts, in English and Spanish, to help families extend and reinforce the learning at home.

Learn more about PNC Grow Up Great

U.S. Department of Education

Initiated through the U.S. Department of Education in 2018, the Statewide Family Engagement Centers (SFEC) program provides 12 grantees and 13 states with five-year, $5 million grants to promote and implement systemic evidenced-based family engagement strategies. NCFL was selected to lead SFECs in two states, Arizona and Nebraska, and is a primary partner for two other SFECs in Kentucky and Maryland/Pennsylvania. 

The SFECs work to support family engagement through state- and local-level agencies while providing both professional development to school districts and direct services to families related to children’s academic outcomes and overall well-being.

Learn more about the U.S. Department of Education

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

NCFL was named a recipient of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s "Voices for Economic Opportunity Grand Challenge," which seeks to elevate diverse voices in order to broaden the conversation about the issues inhibiting economic mobility and generate deeper awareness along with actionable understanding. NCFL will develop and launch a podcast series that will highlight the remarkable stories of low-income, diverse families across the U.S. who have improved their communities through Family Service Learning.

Foundation Website