Building and measuring tech-powered family partnerships, one library at a time

Grace McCarty
February 08, 2024

A science museum is helping families develop the digital literacy skills they need to enhance theirs and their children’s learning. A nonprofit organization is developing school libraries as a means for supporting and growing reading cultures in school and at home. An ed tech firm seeks to collaborate with families, using targeted accessible digital tools, to provide personalized, practical, and equitable literacy supports that enable children to read on grade level. 

For the last several months, dozens of practitioners have been learning with and from each other how to devise strategies for measuring the impact of their partnerships with families through tech-infused learning and communication. As part of CPRL’s Cohort on Tech-Powered Family Partnership, these leaders are leaning on our Leading Through Learning Playbook to identify what people, policies, and conditions will drive forward or inhibit their work. Central to this effort is determining how to integrate measurement fully and seamlessly into their teams’ daily work so that they can continually gauge whether they are meeting the needs of every young person, family, and community. 

Start Lighthouse staff in CPRL professional learning session.

One of these partners is Start Lighthouse. This nonprofit organization is working to advance childhood literacy in partnership with NYC public schools and families. They are reviving school libraries as literacy hubs within schools. Leaders there have spent the last several months working with CPRL to develop ways to improve their tech-infused communication with families and to measure how students, families, and educators are experiencing their programs, and how their programs, ultimately, are affecting students’ reading skills and habits. 

Our team has been observing their work for several months. When I recently asked co-founder and Executive Director Rina Madhani and Director of Programming Deborah Rose to reflect on their efforts and how they know they are having an impact on students, they shared this story: 

“When third grader Abdel picked up the book Halal Hot Dog in his literacy hub one day last year, he couldn’t believe what he saw: a character with his name. He was in shock, he had never seen that before. Abdel got to take the book home to add to his personal library. Soon after, the author Susannah Aziz read to his class. When his school hosted an Eid celebration, his mom and siblings came. They said they had never before felt such a sense of representation and safety; it meant so much to them to have a space where they were being celebrated and uplifted. 

“That’s not something you can measure with a test score alone,” Rina said. “These observations, and knowing and learning from his family, show that this is such a magical experience.”

“For us it’s the conversations we are hearing from the kids, it’s the excitement we are seeing when they walk into the space. Attitudes have changed. That’s all really good data.” -- Deborah Rose, Start Lighthouse 

Rina founded Start Lighthouse in March 2020 after the pandemic closed schools. Students and families were searching for learning materials to use at home. Rina was teaching elementary school in the Bronx and wanted to put the power of reading back in the hands of students. Working with a local principal, she created pop up book events at her Bronx elementary school’s meal distribution site. They created literacy toolkits with culturally responsive books, and hosted author readings. As she grew the program to eight Title I schools in the Bronx, she discovered many schools had unused library spaces and lacked staff librarians. 

Today Start Lighthouse is helping schools revive these libraries. Working with school leaders, they’ve set up in-school literacy hubs to support young readers of all levels, and they’re partnering with teachers and school staff to align with classroom literacy instruction. They’re also engaging with families and caregivers to encourage reading cultures at home through workshops and provision of multicultural books for students’ home libraries. 

“It’s not just about putting books in the hands of kids but what do you do with those books,” Deborah said. “We’re working on reading comprehension and on opening up students to the joy of reading.”

They partnered with CPRL when they realized that to be successful, they need to understand the impact of their efforts. 

“We want to be able to assess how children’s attitudes are shifting and how the reading culture in homes is being affected,” Rina said. Working with CPRL, they’ve been looking beyond data typically collected by schools to understand how children feel about reading, and how parents and caregivers feel about their children's reading experience. 

staff cut ribbon on a new school library, with students watching

They have developed evaluation tools including a literacy lesson observation rubric and a biannual survey of students, caregivers, and teachers, as well as a tool for identifying strong school partners to add to their program. They said they’re already seeing through their classroom observation and student participation rubrics that their curriculum aligns with their mission and approach and is helping them meet the varied learning needs of students across grade levels. 

“Test scores don’t get to the heart of what we are doing here,” Deborah told me. “For us it’s the conversations we are hearing from the kids, it’s the excitement we are seeing when they walk into the space. Attitudes have changed. That’s all really good data.”

With plans to grow, and a waitlist of schools seeking to join the program, they have also been thinking intentionally about identifying their next partners. They have designed and started using a framework for building those collaborations, one that’s based on when they see the greatest impact on their students and families: when they have a strong partnership and regular communication with the principal; ability to regularly communicate with teachers or team leads; and a fixed weekly schedule for each class to go to the Literacy Hub. They recently used this framework to help structure conversations with the principals at their new schools so that they could identify together their areas of focus and establish shared expectations for approaching this work as a team. 

Said Rina, “We do best for kids when we are embedded in the daily work of the school, when we are part of the culture. That’s how we can shift students’ perceptions of literacy and how literacy is viewed by teachers and administrators.”

With the new measurement process they built with CPRL in place, they are already seeing their efficacy, and where they can keep getting better.