Two articles in the National Journal last week provide further hope that the rebranding/refashioning of family literacy, a once powerful and influential approach to adult education that fell out of fashion for some reason over the last decade or so, is gaining traction.
The first piece, by Fawn Johnson, examines the “two-generation” approach to literacy practiced by the Briya Public Charter School here in Washington, D.C., a program that provides a preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds while their parents are offered English-language instruction, basic computer skills, and parenting classes—as well as skills that will help them nurture their child’s developing literacy skills. What’s interesting, though not mentioned specifically in the piece, is that Briya’s roots are as a federally funded Even Start program, a federal initiative that not so long ago provided upwards of 150,000 families (that’s from memory—I can’t locate the exact figures at the moment) with such services in programs across the country. This “two-gen” approach certainly had fallen out of favor among federal policymakers by the end of the last decade, as Even Start funding was cut several times by Congress, continually proposed for elimination by President Obama in his budgets, and finally eliminated for good in 2012.
Thankfully, Mary’s Center, which started the program, developed strategies that made their program less dependent on federal funds, beginning with going after charter school funding back in 2006 and forming the Even Start/ESF Public Charter School, which later evolved into Briya. While it’s good news that Briya survived and even grew despite the cut, many (most?) Even Start programs have shut their doors. If the family-focused approach is indeed back in fashion, it’s important to understand that we let a lot of other programs like Briya wither and die over the last several years. Maybe its time to work together to revive federal support for such initiatives.
The second article, by Alana Semuels of The Atlantic, examines the two-generation model championed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, focusing on a program in Mechanicsville, Georgia where they are piloting this approach. Here again, as Semuels’ points out, the general concept is not new (the paper cited twice in the article is actually from 1995), and this model appears to focus less on education services for the parents as much on other services and assistance. But the basic idea appears similar to the Briya approach.
The term “family literacy” started to go out of fashion around the same time that Even Start was under attack (the National Center for Family Literacy actually changed their name to the National Center for Families Learning a few years ago). Sadly, the phrases “family literacy” and “Even Start” don’t appear once in either article. But I doubt there are many substantial differences between the approach they are taking at Briya today and the approach they took when it was an Even Start program.
Whatever it’s called, and however much of the approach is actually “new,” the embrace (or re-embrace) of family-focused, dual adult/child literacy approaches by policy and media influencers is long overdue. It’s especially heartening to read a quote like this one from Anne Mosle, the executive director of Ascend, at the Aspen Institute, in the Johnson piece: “For all the strides we’ve made in investing in early education, we can’t put all of the weight on the back of the child.”
If you scroll back through this blog you’ll find no shortage of posts lamenting what appeared to me to be a frustrating lack of understanding—most notably, in the pre-K movement of recent years—of the critical role of parents in childhood literacy development (I even wrote an op-ed about it, many, many years ago), and this renewed interest in linking the two again may present some interesting new opportunities to advance the adult education cause in the coming years. (Although there is still a lot of work to do to connect the dots—neither article conveys any sense that an adult education system actually exists, let alone the role it has played and continues to play in these efforts.)