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Kentucky native and national family literacy pioneer Sharon Darling announces retirement from NCFL

Starting in a small Kentucky church basement in the 1970s helping adults learn to read, Sharon Darling went on to become the nation’s pioneer of family literacy — which brings parenting adults and their children together to learn.

Now, more than three decades after launching the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL), Darling will retire from her role as president at the end of this year. NCFL will announce its new president in the coming weeks.

Since its founding in 1989 in Louisville, NCFL has piloted, evaluated, and scaled the family literacy model. A major breakthrough was successfully aligning an approved federal definition of family literacy with the philosophy of family literacy created by Sharon and NCFL. To date, more than 4.5 million parents and children across 150 communities in 39 states and Washington, D.C. have improved their lives through education offered through NCFL.

The organization’s digital properties, including Wonderopolis® and the National Literacy Directory, have grown to foster learning connections among tens of millions more learners, while its annual Families Learning Conference has become a leading literacy and family engagement event nationwide.

Sharon Darling

Moving forward, Darling will continue to serve as an active member of the NCFL Board of Directors, supporting the organization in a variety of ways. The Board has announced the creation of the Sharon Darling Innovation Fund, which will enable NCFL to test new family literacy and learning innovations throughout its national network.

A lifetime of serving children and their families

Darling’s time teaching reading in a church basement was also spent researching adult literacy to find the most effective methods to teach adults. With her findings hailed by the U.S. Department of Education, she traveled the country consulting with governors and policymakers as they addressed their challenges of adult literacy.

Darling was appointed to the Kentucky Department of Education to tackle the multigenerational challenges of illiteracy and launched a groundbreaking multigenerational learning initiative in Appalachia — the Parent and Child Education (PACE) program. Again, her work was deemed a success, winning awards from the Ford Foundation and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. It led to a grant from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust to create NCFL.

NCFL remains headquartered in Louisville, with statewide offices in Arizona and Nebraska and partnerships with local cities and communities throughout the nation. A 30-year partnership with the Bureau of Indian Education has extended the organization’s footprint to dozens of American Indian communities. It’s policy work continues to reverberate across the country with a federally recognized annual National Family Literacy Day®, Family Service Learning Week, and ever-growing family engagement support.

Lifelong Kentuckian, Darling honored throughout the U.S.

Along the journey, Darling worked with four U.S. presidents and their administrations to share the power of family literacy. She was instrumental in helping Barbara Bush create the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, serving as a founding board member and close friend to Barbara for many years.

A graduate of Jefferson County Public Schools and the University of Louisville, Darling continues to receive recognition for her groundbreaking work and leadership role in the nation. Her many awards and recognitions include the National Humanities Medal awarded by President George W. Bush; Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, Johns Hopkins University; the Harold W. McGraw Award for Outstanding National Educator; and the Woman of Distinction Award, Birmingham Southern University.

In addition, she has been featured on the Arts & Entertainment television network’s series, Biography, and inducted into the Frederick Douglass Hall of Fame on Capitol Hill. In Kentucky, she has been recognized with honorary doctorates from Spalding University and Bellarmine University and received both the Distinguished Alumni Award and the Alumni Fellow Award from the University of Louisville.

Gained support of corporations/foundations to boost families in poverty

Darling had the ability to create long-lasting partnerships with corporations and foundations that positively impacted families experiencing poverty. For example, Toyota Motor Corp. (TMC) has contributed over $50 million to NCFL to help in its work to eradicate poverty through education solutions for families.

In the words of Dr. Shoichiro Toyoda — honorary chairman of TMC — from the book Grit, Grace and Gratitude, “When I first met Sharon 30 years ago, I was deeply impressed with her great vision that parents and children learn together, her passion and strong leadership, and her tireless efforts to break the cycle of poverty and low literacy. Sharon’s vision soon became our own.”

She took great pride in working with so many determined parents and children. “It has been my greatest honor to work alongside so many hardworking, inspiring families for all these years,” Darling said. “Never did I expect my life to unfold how it has, but, each day, I am grateful to all those who believe in the tremendous power of multigenerational learning. I am incredibly proud of the work of NCFL and I know the next generation of leaders will engage families in education like never before.”

To kick off the Sharon Darling Innovation Fund, NCFL has raised $750,000 through board leadership. For any individuals or institutions interested in donating to build upon the strong legacy established by Darling, please contact scoughlin@familieslearning.org.

National Center for Families Learning

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