Great By Eight

 By Carolyn Smallwood, Executive Director of Way to Grow

Way to Grow 2009 campaign for Little and Co

Way to Grow 2009 campaign for Little and Co

Way to Grow began in 1989 working with mothers and fathers of young children age birth to 5. We were established as a program of the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board through the collaborative efforts of Mayor Emeritus Don Fraser, (then) Honeywell CEO Jim Renier, and the Greater Twin Cities United Way to nurture and encourage a child’s first teachers – their parents.

Since our founding, we have sought to reverse negative educational trends in Minneapolis by building trusted, community- based educational supports for parents and their children. The key to our success is building solid relationships with families through home visits, center-based classes and community-based classes, while working with parents to provide the information and skills to encourage their children’s learning.

Way to Grow meets families and children where they are and works to move them forward, providing outcome-based, holistic, year-round, multi-year, language-to-language, culture-to-culture programming. Our Family Educators and Resource Advocates are collectively fluent in seven languages and culturally reflect the families we serve. These dedicated individuals serve as translators and tour guides to help families navigate the sometimes difficult terrain of the education and social service systems.

Nicholas Kristof’s recent New York Times article on the language gap reinforced many of our beliefs and practices related to bringing literacy into the homes of our families, highlighting the “connection between a child’s early vocabulary and later success in reading comprehension.”

As Kristof wrote, we cannot overemphasize “the importance of natural conversations with children, asking questions while reading books, and helping children identify words during playtime.” That’s why we’ve made home visiting the touchstone of our program. Family Educators conduct home visits with families 2-4 times per month, for 1-3 hours per visit. They help parents read and play with their children, utilizing intentional literacy and numeracy building practices including the use of books, toys, and props to promote reading and math skills.

Before that, our first step in beginning to work with a family is to stabilize the home, so success can be achieved in other programming areas. We assess each family’s situation and any challenges they face in accessing basic needs.

Our early childhood literacy and math programming (ages 0-5) combines our home visits with center-based programs and community events like Family Game Night, educating families on best practices, literacy development, health and nutrition, family safety, mental health, and child development.

As children and families transition to our school-aged program (K-3), Family Educators continue to visit parents and children in their homes to model and demonstrate to parents what their students are expected to learn at each grade level in literacy, math, science, and social studies. These visits nurture connections and strengthen relationships among parents, educators, and community service providers.

Our health and wellness programming is delivered through guided conversation and hands-on activities, including instructional and teach-back methodologies, videos, games and other educational tools. Conversation topics and activities are designed to engage the client and allows for Family Educators to assess understanding and adapt activities as children grow.

Through our Dream Tracks teen parenting program, we provide support and training to help young mothers take charge of their lives and propel themselves out of the downward spiral that early pregnancy has historically predetermined.

Through this work and through our partnership with Generation Next, we hope to witness the long-term strengthening of systemic partnerships between public schools, community-based organizations, foundations, and corporations focusing on improved early learning outcomes in the Twin Cities.

Family-centered models like Way to Grow help build a strong community, and support thriving families and children who are healthy, safe, and ready to learn.

The parents we serve have the same hopes and dreams for their children as any loving parent.  By identifying and breaking down the barriers they face as parents, we can help them make good on those hopes and dreams.

For more information on Carolyn and Way To Grow, please visit

SIF 2015