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Jul 18, 2023 |

STEM lessons from a telenovela. An alumni network that builds on preschool family learning achievements once children reach kindergarten. A playbook for teaching parents how to play with their children. These three distinct programs topped more than 360 applicants for the Sharon Darling Innovation Fund Family Learning System Challenge, from National Center for Families Learning. The winning organizations – Literacy Partners of New York, Bright Beginnings in Washington, D.C., and Oregon State University – will each receive $30,000 to implement their project.

Established in honor of NCFL’s founder, the Sharon Darling Innovation Fund was created to develop and test new family learning breakthroughs across the country. Research shows that parent engagement in education is critical for a child’s long-term success in school and beyond. In addition to student gains, the whole family benefits, contributing to a thriving, equitable community.

“I couldn’t be more excited to see the massive response to this challenge, and so many cutting-edge ideas,” Darling said. “The three winners are so different in their approach to family learning. These grants will help each organization take their project to the next level and will have a transformative impact in the lives of families and communities across the nation.”

The Sharon Darling Innovation Fund Family Learning System Challenge seeks to support ground-breaking programming that increases access and quality of educational opportunities for parenting adults and families; improves learning outcomes for children and caregivers; enhances and increases positive interactions between children and caregivers, develops parent leadership skills, and promotes strong connections and engagement between families, schools, and communities.

Each grant builds on already strong programming that fits within NCFL’s two-generation family learning approach:

Literacy Partners: The New York-based organization will deepen learning related to its science-themed telenovela-style mini-series, created in partnership with Univision. This grant will be used to create a workshop curriculum with families in Philadelphia and Dallas. The curriculum will bring to life STEM-related lessons from “La Fuerza de Familias Latinas.” The hands-on activities will encourage caregivers and children to develop science literacy, as well as build cognitive foundations of STEM learning, including wonder and curiosity, observation, measurement, experimentation, and persistence. “La Fuerza de Familias Latinas” STEM telenovela and curriculum premiere this fall.

Bright Beginnings: Bright Beginnings serves families experiencing housing instability and financial hardship in Washington, D.C. The organization provides high-quality pre-kindergarten, Head Start and Early Head Start, and family wraparound services. Bright Beginnings will utilize this grant to create an Alumni Support Network for families whose children have transitioned to kindergarten and continue support through the children’s high school graduation. Its vision is to partner with local public and charter schools and other organizations to create a collaborative community that empowers parents to grow a strong social fabric, with access to support and resources, so their families may thrive.

Oregon State University: Professors Xiangyou Shen, Ph.D. (College of Forestry) and Shauna Tominey, Ph.D. (College of Health) are teaming up through their work with the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children & Families at Oregon State University to develop a program that encourages and empowers parents and caregivers to take a more playful approach to parenting. Through play, children learn foundational academic skills, grow social-emotional strategies, and physically strengthen their bodies. Play also positively impacts parents, including improving parent-child relationships, parenting behavior, enjoyment and well-being, as well as child outcomes. Parents and caregivers with preschool-aged children will help develop and evaluate the curriculum. Then, the “Playful Path to Parenting” would be deployed statewide through parent-educator training supported by the Oregon Parenting Education Collaborative.

“These diverse programs will engage with parents and caregivers and their children in unique and exciting ways, and, long-term, bring the potential opportunity to scale efforts on a national level through NCFL’s partners,” said Dr. Felicia C. Smith, NCFL president and CEO. “One organization cannot drive change alone. We must work together, consider innovative ideas for improving family learning systems, and nurture and spread the ideas that work. By doing so, we unleash opportunities for children and families to thrive.”

The three projects will begin work immediately and continue over the next 12 to 18 months.


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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