Museums and Community-based Organizations Partnering to Support Family Literacy

April 11, 2022

Karen Knutson and Kevin Crowley studied and supported the effectiveness of a collaboration between cultural institutions and community-based organizations to bring engaging, literacy-rich learning experiences to families with young children in neighborhoods across Philadelphia.

Main takeaways from this research are:

  • Partnerships between cultural organizations and community-based organizations (CBOs) encourage the museums' informal learning professionals to move away from traditional one-way outreach models toward collaborative, community-centered design.
  • Partners in the network promoted a culturally responsive approach by validating families' languages, cultures, and historical perspectives and by asking for their input on subjects and books that would reflect their community and interests.
  • By networking the partnerships together, ILI encouraged a culture of co-design and iterative improvement for a diverse set of organizations working with Philadelphia families.

Child writing in museum

In 2017, the William Penn Foundation founded the Informal Learning Initiative (ILI), a network of cultural institutions and community-based organizations (CBOs) that collaborated to bring literacy-rich learning experiences to families with young children in neighborhoods across Philadelphia. Together, they designed a series of learning opportunities to engage children and their caregivers in creative play and discovery geared toward developing children's early literacy skills.

ILI called on cultural organizations to become part of collective efforts to improve family literacy. Although cultural organizations are informal learning institutions that design learning experiences as part of their mission, families from many communities do not visit these institutions. Structural barriers such as transportation, location and cost, can be part of the problem, but a lack of representation for historically marginalized communities can make many feel unwelcome.

Efforts such as ILI are helping cultural organizations rethink public outreach. Working closely with communities and focusing on the specific needs of particular audiences, partnerships such as those created by the ILI can tailor their resources and co-design educational experiences that are relevant, accessible, and useful to target audiences. The partnerships encourage CBO staff to see their part in designing learning experiences that are accessible and welcoming to their communities. More, the ILI made it possible for Philadelphia families to engage with the city's cultural assets, regardless of income level.

Co-directors from the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments (UPCLOSE) Karen Knutson, LRDC Research Associate, and Kevin Crowley, Associate Dean, University of Pittsburgh School of Education, and Senior Scientist, Learning Research & Development Center evaluated the effectiveness of the ILI by measuring changes in children's interest, abilities, and engagement with literacy. The evaluators also measured changes in caregiver attitudes, knowledge, and skills.

Four elements of the ILI approach challenged museums and CBOs to move beyond their traditional roles to become central actors in Philadelphia's educational ecosystem.

Read the full article from Knutson and Crowley in AfterSchool Matters on the LRDC website.

Knutson, K., & Crowley, K. (2022). Museums and community-based organizations partnering to support family literacy. AfterSchool Matters.