A Whole-Family Approach to Learning

Caitlin Johnson
August 14, 2000

Every school day in 1999, Frederick and Jacqueline King walked to school together. They spent thirty minutes in the same class, then Jacqueline said goodbye to Frederick and went to her regular classroom down the hall. Every Tuesday, they ate lunch together and swapped stories of what they had learned.

The two aren't siblings—Jacqueline is Frederick's mother. And theirs is no ordinary school. Their hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina is a pilot site for the National Center for Family Literacy's Family Independence Initiative (FII), which brings together public schools, community colleges and social services agencies to give low-income families access to family literacy support. So while Frederick was in his pre-school classroom learning numbers and getting prepped for Kindergarten, his mother was right next door learning the best ways to communicate with her child, taking cooking and nutrition classes and working on her GED.

It's hard to say who enjoyed this schedule more, Frederick or his mother. "My being there motivated him," says the elder King. "When I go into the classroom he says, 'It's my mommy!' He'd show me around his classes, I'd show him the stuff we did in mine, the big-person's class. It makes him feel like, 'This is not just some place my mother sends me to get me away from home, I'm here to learn and she's here supporting me.'"

The family that learns together...
Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) in Charlotte is one of five cities or locations chosen by the National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL) as a pilot site. CPCC works works in conjunction with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the Mecklenburg Department of Social Services to strengthen and enrich the program.

Like other family literacy programs across the country, FII does more than just teach people how to read—it combines early and adult education programs to help parents and children learn together, and give parents skills to become their children's first teachers.

Most family literacy programs follow the four components outlined in the federal Even Start initiative: adult education, parent training, early education and parent and child togetherness. Charlotte's FII weaves job preparation and employment assistance throughout, to help parents on welfare move into stable, living-wage work. Parents are paired with an employment facilitator, who works with them to prepare resumes and cover letters, set up interviews and job shadowing opportunities and answer questions about anything from opening a bank account to proper workplace attire.

This makes Charlotte's FII one of the first programs to use family literacy programs as a strategy to help parents on public assistance. "When welfare reform was established, we realized that a family literacy program could offer support from an overall family perspective. While parents are working on skills they need in the workplace, their children are right nearby and their child care needs are taken care of," says the NCFL's Mary Gwen Wheeler. "We're building on family literacy programs that haven't necessarily included work and work experience in their programs."

For parents like Jacqueline King, who knew how to read but never finished high school, the program boosts their understanding and confidence and encourages involvement in their child's education—while at the same time providing adult education and job preparation. Teachers from nearby Central Piedmont Community College and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) hold classes in CMS elementary schools so parents can be near their kids while they're learning.

"This has been wonderful for me," King says. "I never stick to anything, so for me to start school last September and still be here, it's a plus. It has made me a stronger person, more confident. I'm willing to strive harder, work harder to reach my goals. And I am determined."

Meeting ambitious goals
Early evidence suggests that through the program, families have increased their wages and found jobs that allow for more advancement than they had access to before. And children are emerging ready to learn: roughly 85 percent of preschoolers in the program can spell their name and distinguish between letters and numbers.

Of the 26 families who started in school year 1998-1999, more than half—including Jacqueline King—will graduate in the next few months. Two have already completed the program. Ninety percent of adults in the program are prepared to take some of the components of the GED, and most have increased their test scores by at least 10 points since they started in the program.

It's helping home life, too. "Parents are taking more initiative to understand the development of their children and become more involved in their children's learning. They're also budgeting their money, working towards home ownership, and increasing their academic skills," says Lynn Stevens, the local coordinator of the Charlotte FII.

Spreading the word
If there's a downside, it's that not enough parents know about the program, according Jacqueline King, who first learned of it from a letter sent to families in her neighborhood. If she had thrown the letter out instead of reading it, she says, she never would have known she was eligible.

The only requirement for enrollment is that low-income parents must have a 4-year-old child who is ready to attend Smart Start early learning classes; child care is provided for younger children who are not in school.

Through community partners like the United Way and Reach out and Read, a literacy program run through hospitals and health clinics, workers are trying to get the word out to eligible families. "Charlotte has a very low unemployment rate, and many parents [receiving welfare] are fully engaged in work," says Wheeler. "It's a challenge to reach those who are working who need these skills to move out of marginal jobs and into jobs that will be self-sustaining."

This September, it's off to Kindergarten for Frederick. And he's noticeably excited about the name tag and bus number he was recently assigned. Though he's in a different school, Jacqueline says she will still go to his classes as much as she can, and plans to have lunch with him every Tuesday, just as she did last year. She'll also mentor a child in the Smart Start program who doesn't have visiting parents in FII.

"I've always felt that school was important for my son," Jacqueline says. "But I know how I was. If I'd had that involvement [from a parent], I probably would have finished school. If he has this help, and I'm behind him, he'll do it. I know it."


Caitlin Johnson is staff writer at Connect for Kids.