October 21, 2014
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A partnership that’s working to break the cycle of low education and achievement
Kathleen Cloutier

The first 25 first-generation immigrant participants to graduate from a six-month family learning program in the Cranston area have 25 unique stories involving parents and their children helping one another overcome challenges and – for many of the parents – realizing that you’re never too old to learn new things.

The recent graduation ceremony at the Cranston Portuguese Club recognized the completion of an innovative, intergenerational education and community service program launched at Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island last fall. Study after study has proven that, when parents are engaged in their children’s learning, the students do better. And more recent studies also indicate that the willingness of a parent to get involved in their child’s education can greatly benefit and strengthen the parent-child relationship … as well as the entire school and the community as a whole.

Dorcas International Institute, which serves predominantly new immigrant families with low to no English skills, was one of the first five organizations in the country to receive a $175,000, three-year grant to launch Toyota Family Learning, which was created by the National Center for Families Learning and funded by Toyota.

Decades after the introduction of personal computers, and now well into the generation that has never lived without tablets and smartphones, many of our children still enter school at risk for failure because mom or dad cannot speak English. Breaking the cycle of low education and achievement requires reframing the way many parents view school and the way many educators think about families’ roles in schools. Studies identify several elements of a successful family literacy program: parents learning alongside their children in classrooms, increasing parents’ English language skills, enhancing the home literacy environment, and greater parental engagement in schools.

Through Toyota Family Learning, we are seeing that families facing tremendous challenges in our community – where a language other than English is spoken in nearly half the homes, nearly 30 percent of residents are foreign born and the poverty rate of 27.9 percent is more than double that of the rest of Rhode Island – are accomplishing things working side-by-side that they were struggling to focus on at all before.

Those who graduated from Toyota Family Learning were proud of their accomplishments, and the accomplishments of their families. As one grandmother said with great pride, “Thanks to this program and the English class, I can show to my grandson that no matter what the age you can achieve your goals and be a successful person.”

In our experience with Toyota Family Learning, we see several elements that appear effective in helping us bridge that gap:

Parent and Child Together (PACT) time in the formal classroom setting, combined with informal PACT time at home as they tackle their classwork together;

Learning together through participation in three community service projects;

Family-to-family mentoring, to build community networks that will enable graduates to continue learning from and sharing with one another once the program is complete;

An online learning community and mobile learning adventures for families.

We encourage community workers and area agencies to further explore the family learning dynamic as they look for ways to close the gap between classroom and lifelong learning for the many non-English speaking families in our community.  What we’ve seen these past six months is that partnerships that include a national family learning expert such as NCFL and a local organization such as Dorcas International Institute, and that are backed by corporate seed money (in this case, from Toyota), can create opportunities for true educational achievement that provides enduring benefits for families, schools and the entire community.

By Kathleen Cloutier is the executive director of the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island.


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