Ep. 191: A Chat with Families Empowered

June 30, 2020

In this episode, we are joined by team members at Families Empowered, a Texas organization with a mission to help all families gain access to schools that work for them. We take a deep dive into what the experts know about why and how families choose education settings for their kids.

Drew Catt: Hello, and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. I’m Drew Catt, director of state research and special projects here at EdChoice. Today, we’re delving deeper into what the experts know about why and how families choose education settings for their kids with the team at Families Empowered, a Texas organization with a mission to help all families gain access to schools that work for them by informing parents of all of their options. They provide Texas families all kinds of resources, including a school finder tool and more on their website. Without further ado, here to talk to us more about how and why families choose are Colleen Dippel, the founder and CEO of Families Empowered and Ayla Dehghanpoor, their marketing and communications manager. Welcome. And thank you for chatting with us today.

Colleen Dippel: Hello.

Ayla Dehghanpoor: It’s great to be here.

Drew Catt: Yeah. So, Colleen, how long has Families Empowered been around? And what inspired you to found the organization?

Colleen Dippel: So, we’ve been serving families for 11 years and honestly it wasn’t really a profound experience. It was sitting on a porch with some other parents, and actually some charter school leaders, and recognizing that there were lots of parents like us. I was a new parent at the time. Who were looking for schools and who were wait-listed at these very high performing charter schools we have in Texas. And I just asked a question, which is, “So where do parents go when they’re looking for a school? And what happens to families who get wait-listed at a school of their choice?” And everyone just said, “We don’t know.” It was like, there was no answer to that. And then I said, well, as a former teacher, I thought, “Wow, there might be a need here to serve families who are looking for schools, but just don’t know how to navigate the system.” So it’s kind of simple. It’s not very sexy, but that’s how it started.

Drew Catt: Yeah. It’s amazing how so many amazing organizations can have such humble beginnings, like just gathering on a porch. So what are some ways that you all support parents through these crucial decisions of locating the school that’s the best fit for their children?

Colleen Dippel: I’ll start. And just say that that’s pains over time. In the beginning, we were doing lots of just live events where we would connect families with schools, and schools with families. And that was, again, 11 years ago before actually Instagram, and some of the social media platforms were as sophisticated as they are. And so we went from just having live events, fairs, to then bringing on a call center in year three. We now have a call center that supports families five days a week, and that’s a bilingual, free call center. We obviously have digital tools. And then, with COVID, we’ve actually had to pivot, again. And so we are, you know, always thinking about where our parents are and how to serve them and what they respond to. So we’ve got lots of strategies for connecting families with schools and it really… I mean, context, time, technology, and what parents respond to is really what drives how we work with them.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And I know there must be incredible competition for parents’ attention these days. Many state-based groups out there tell us that’s a huge challenge for them. So I know you mentioned Instagram and social media, but how do you reach families with your message and services?

Ayla Dehghanpoor: Yeah, so stepping back and talking about, you know, the world pre COVID, we actually still employed a lot of those original methods. We were out in the community. We were boots on the ground, everything from door hangers, block walking, to school fairs. We introduced a really fun event that we call City Wide Open House in Austin and San Antonio, where we were able to bring together schools all over the city. They all opened their doors on the same day, at the same time for families to come tour. And we manage the logistics of it and we had a hub. And so we invited parents to go out and actually see the school and talk to the principals and the teachers and even some other current parents. And so that’s how we really worked to bring families together with schools in person, face to face.

We know after 11 years of talking to parents and really listening to parents at the core of our work is that we work for these families and they like to talk to people. They don’t necessarily love to only receive an email or only see us on social media. They really want a full rounded relationship with us. And so those real face-to-face interactions have been super important. Post COVID, as Colleen mentioned, we have pivoted into these Facebook Live events. We’ve been doing them since March, and they’ve been really wonderful to see the way that parents have come together, hopped online, been able to ask questions one-on-one with schools, and with other community organizations. So that’s another way that we’re still continuing to bring them face to face with the resources that they need. Other than that, it’s pretty basic.

We talked to them on the phone, our family success specialists are there five days a week to pick up the phone and answer really specific questions. We also do a lot of text messaging. And then of course, just social media across all the platforms—Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, all that fun stuff.

Colleen Dippel: And I’ll just also add really briefly. The other thing that’s very unique, I think for us, is that when we started and up until very recently, there were no other organizations doing this work in Texas. And we are still the largest parent service organization in the state. And we are the only non-governmental organization doing this. We not a branch of Texas Education Agency or even the Charter School Association. We are an independently run private not-for-profit. So that allows us the ability, one, to collect lots of information about our parents and build a parent database that’s diverse, but as Ayla said, we’re able to build relationships that are very trusting because we don’t sell our data. We’re not sharing it with the state or the government. We provide private services to private individuals, and that allows a lot of trust and lasting relationships to be built. We have over 90,000 families in our data infrastructure who have requested our services over 11 years. We think we’re one of the largest parent service organizations in the country and we are certainly the largest in Texas of our kind.

Drew Catt: Wow. Yeah. And it’s always heartening to see a nonprofit fill a need that’s out there that the public sector and the private sector aren’t filling. So you talked about data. As a data geek myself, can you tell us about some of the studies your organization has been a part of? And what have you really learned about why families choose?

Colleen Dippel: So I’m going to just set this up a little bit and have Ayla talk about it. So just to be really clear, our tagline is we work for families because we do work for a family. We always say, we’re not a think tank. We are a do tank. We are not pushing out white papers and we’re not a research-based organization. That said because we have a full time call center, because we have just a really incredible asset in terms of parents who trust us, and listen, and talk to us, and tell us the truth, we’ve had a lot of capabilities and opportunities to survey parents. And Ayla will talk a little more about that, but we’ve had a good fortune of being able to partner with other organizations, but build our own data collection processes. So we collect lots of good parent data and survey parents.

We do that mostly to inform our practice and service, but we absolutely share that data in an open source way. And we have pretty significant usually sample sizes around our responses. So I’ll let Ayla talk a little bit about that, but I want to be really clear. We’re not collecting data for research purposes per se. We’re doing it because we’re really interested in what parents want and then how we can be of service. But, yeah. We got some really good information.

Ayla Dehghanpoor: Yeah. We really do. And as Colleen mentioned, it all centers around listening to parents so that we can help serve them in the best way possible. So one of the things that we do are our baseline surveys where we talk to the same subset of families from our database for years at a time, just to follow their journey and see what they’re learning and how as their kids move up through the grades and how their school choices have changed and how that affects their family and what information and resources have affected their journey.

And so in those surveys, we’ve learned a lot about our demographics. We serve about 89 percent are families of color, 81 percent have a household income of less than $50,000 a year, but of those families, we’ve also learned that these resource constrained parents are incredibly choosy. They care about choosing the right school for their kids. You know, 94 percent of parents rated strong academics as the primary concern that they had when they were searching for schools. But at the same time, 43 percent of those parents said that they’re still looking for schools because they couldn’t find a school that was right for their family, and that worked for their kids. Diving a little bit deeper, what has been really interesting to see through our shared application platform, so here in Houston, we launched Apply Houston, which is a shared application platform. We’ve got public charters and private schools as a part of it.

Families can fill out one application, select all of the schools that are on the platform that they want to submit to, click a button, and it goes out to all of them. It makes it really easy for families. But through that, we were able to see that 29 percent of those applicants were willing to travel up to 30 miles away from their home for the right school, which is a pretty significant amount of parents when you’re talking about commute time, especially in Houston, which is crazy with commutes. It’s really interesting to see that these parents really are choosy. And it really is about finding a school that works for their kids. We were also able to see that 54 percent of those families that applied on Apply Houston actually had upward mobility in the school that they were attending that they’re ranking.

So, 54 percent of those families actually applied to A- and B-rated schools from lower rated schools. We know that they’re choosing, and they’re choosing purposely. So that’s one of the ways that we track their progress, and just see how they’re doing, and extend our relationship with them, and make sure that they’re getting the best service possible. Another thing we do are these fun digital surveys. We run them about once every other month and they go out to our entire database. They’re primarily digital surveys, so quick and dirty surveys, but they serve a really great purpose in informing us exactly what parents are thinking about right now, to keep it very topical, and in the moment. We recently asked parents, what do you need right now in this COVID-19 world? So we learned a lot about the services that they needed, but we also learned that a lot of parents are really worried about learning loss.

You know, 60 percent of the parents that filled out this digital survey told us that they were really concerned and wanted more information about special education resources. They felt that their kids who needed those resources just weren’t getting them in this whole digital learning landscape. And 30 percent parents actually told us that they still needed help finding information about schools for their kids, but not only for the next school year. Also immediately they were looking to potentially switch schools for their kids. And 30 percent is actually pretty significant when you’re talking about potential immediate move in schools. Going forward we know parents want summer programming. Eighty-three percent of parents said that they would take advantage of summer programming if it was available for their kiddos, but that they didn’t require it just to go back to work. They actually want it and need it for their families. So it’s just been really interesting to see the way that parents ask us what we can do to pivot and serve them as the world is kind of changing very rapidly around them.

Drew Catt: Yeah. It felt like for the last couple of decades, people have talked a lot about summer learning loss and now really talking about COVID learning loss and, yeah. There’s definitely a need, but it sounds like you all are able to start filling for a lot of those families. So Texas has a large Latinx population and many would argue they’re underrepresented in the whole national education reform conversation. What does your research really show about Latinx parents’ priorities for their kids? What are these parents telling you?

Ayla Dehghanpoor: Well, we know that these parents, they love and care about their kids. They care about the school that their kids go to. And they’re extremely choosy. The majority of our parents are Spanish speaking. Every single piece of information that we put out there, our entire call center, it’s all bilingual. So we offer our services in both Spanish and English all the time, 365 days a year. It’s really important for us to help meet parents where they are. And a big part of that is talking to them in their native language. What we’ve really learned is that they care a lot and that they’re really choosy when it comes to academics. And when it comes to their specific and unique child and their students’ needs.

Colleen Dippel: The fact that 60 percent of our parents are Spanish speaking and we have equal responses. Which is why we put all of our communications in Spanish and English, all of our printed communications and digital communications and a requirement to work in our call center is that you are bilingual. You don’t have to be a native speaker, but you do have to be bilingual. I mean, it’s an absolute requirement for that position on our team. And when you look at the overwhelming number of families who are using any of our Apply sites, whether that’s Apply San Antonio, Apply Houston, or Apply Austin, incidentally, all of those applications, which have a combination of charter schools, traditional schools, and private schools. Again, we are the only common K-12 application in the United States that has both public and private schools on it. Most of them are either a district application or a charter set of applications.

So we’re pretty proud of that, too, but the fact that we’ve had a significant uptick in applications since the COVID shutdown. And, again, what our data tells us is that Latinx parents are open to choice. Latinx parents want to choose a school that’s a right fit for them. And they are not necessarily committed to a specific model of school, but open to lots of options is something I think we should all bear in mind. And I think you’re right. A lot of times traditional research does not reflect the Latinx voice. We’ve seen studies, for example, we saw a study with a partner organization in the city of San Antonio that had not interviewed a statistically significant number of Spanish speaking families.

And it was related to a school finder kind of a project. And we were like, you have to. Our view is you have to ask Latinx families. And particularly in Texas, what they believe if you’re going to actually help to work toward solutions that parents actually want at schools. And so we’re really proud of our response rates and the fact that any survey we put out, again, is always in Spanish and English.

Drew Catt: Yeah. That’s great to hear. So hopefully there are some parents listening. What’s some advice you would give to parents who aren’t happy with their child’s own school? Where should they start?

Colleen Dippel: First of all, if you’re in Texas, I’d say, start with us, www.familiesempowered.org. That’s number one. And on our website, you can call, again, five days a week. You can call someone who can listen to you first and then help you in Spanish and English. I think if you’re not living in Texas or not in the city that we’re serving, I think it’s tough. Right? I think the first thing is most families just assume the only options that they have, right, are their neighborhood schools. And quite frankly, if you’re not happy with your neighborhood school, what you ought to be doing is, I hate to say it, but going online and talking to other parents. If you don’t have options, our advice is parents should work with other parents to demand better schools or more choices.
And then parents need to be talking to their local elected leaders and essentially being super clear with them about what it is that they want or don’t want. But first and foremost, if you’re not happy with your child’s own school, what’s really tough is you probably need to just go on and Google options in my neighborhood. If you’re in Texas, come to us.: familiesempowered.org.

There are other organizations in other states that help families. And there are different versions of what we do. So in Louisiana, there’s EdNavigator. In Memphis, there’s Memphis Lift. There are various organizations doing what we do. There’s another organization, the San Antonio Charter Mom blog. I would say going online, going on social media, but mostly parents have a lot of power. It’s their money, and their kids. They’re the most important people in this equation. And so our view is that the minute parents assume that power and start demanding options and start talking to each other, one would hope, is the moment when schools start listening.

Drew Catt: Yeah. That is the true hope. So what are the most common challenges that you found Texas families encounter in the process of choosing a school? How would you go about helping them through?

Ayla Dehghanpoor: Sure. So I think the most common question and just general challenge is actually understanding the process of choosing a school, understanding how to do it. It’s hard. It’s really confusing. Here at Families Empowered, we took on a project. We take it on every year where we sit down and we put into a spreadsheet, all of the deadlines that you need to know as a parent to apply to a school of choice. And it takes us months. And we have people on our team with masters and PhDs who sit there and it’s all that they do all day long.

And it’s hard. It’s difficult. As a parent, you’ve got kids. You’ve got work. You’ve got to get dinner on the table. You have extracurriculars. Taking on that challenge can seem insurmountable. It really can, because it’s confusing. It just is. And so the way that we help them through that is by doing the work that we do every day, we really are here to listen to parents, pick up the phone, give them these resources digitally and face to face when we can, so that we can compile all of those deadlines and application links and just general information about schools so that if you’ve got a very specific question that applies to your kid, you can get a real answer from real people who are quite frankly unbiased. All we care about is teaching parents the rules of the game that, in most cases, they didn’t know that they were playing. And so that’s what we’re here to do is to help them figure it out.

Colleen Dippel: Yeah. And I’ll just add, and it’s Colleen again, that Ayla is 100 percent right. The most common challenge we found, and it’s consistent, in 11 years, we have not fully cracked this net. But is that there are multiple timelines and multiple rules. Right? So even within the public system, there are different rules. So it’s like the barriers to access to choice often are just… There are different processes for different schools. And so that’s one of the reasons that we created the common applications in all three cities that we’re really diving deep in. So if you go to www.applyhouston.org, or applysanantonio.org, applyaustin.org, what we’ve

really done there was we started with the schools by saying, guys, could you just have the same dates?
It’s that simple. I mean, colleges seem to get this right. Everybody knows the college season. And even though, there are rolling admissions and wait lists and things like that, generally, there’s a season for this. So we started by saying, let’s align dates. Let’s actually have one set of questions. You’re a data geek. It’s mostly a data crosswalk. It’s the same question over and over and over. And if I’m a parent and I’m using a cell phone in between my shift, I don’t have the luxury or the privilege of filling out 10 applications. So we just thought, why wouldn’t we have one application that parents can send to multiple schools?

Again, if universities can do it, why can’t we do this in the K-12 system? So we feel like that’s created enormous efficiencies. It’s created a lot of access and created an opportunity for some equity and access. And that was a big driver for us because this rules of the game, it seemed very rigged. So when folks look at this, they say, well, this is a system that benefits the privileged. The answer is that’s true. Right? And the solutions aren’t rocket science solutions. There’s just not really a lot of political will to do much about it. So we’re really proud of the schools that participated in all of those apply sites. These are people who are fully, truly committed to equity and access. And I think they deserve really a lot of credit because no one’s forced to participate in our state. And these are schools that willingly said, you know what? We’ll level the playing field by participating. And so we’re really proud to have been able to convene them and to, again, convene, not for talking, but for actually doing action on the part of families.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And it’s so, so great that you really have representation from all school types, like you mentioned, unlike a lot of almost all other common applications leave out at least one or two of the schooling sectors. Before we wrap up, are there any upcoming projects we should look out for? Anything you’d like to add? And, most importantly, how can everyone interact with you all online? Other than going to the website you already mentioned?

Colleen Dippel: So, what’s really exciting is for 11 years we’ve been serving and listening to parents. And one area is that we have just, again, we kept running into these barriers with parents who were just totally frustrated. Right? There are not enough quality options. People are not listening to them. And so we’re really excited because we asked, this is a survey question. We asked a significant number of parents, whether or not they wanted to be more actively involved to advocate for better school options. And 59 percent of the parents that we surveyed indicated that they want to advocate. They want to be actively engaged to advocate for positive change in their schools and communities. And so we’re going to spend a lot of time, this year, really working on, first of all, identifying the parents who have the interest and time and want to be actively engaged in building advocacy opportunities in their communities.

Providing a platform for them to share their stories and their voice and taking the lead. And we’re really excited to partner with other organizations to provide opportunities for elected leaders, local community leaders, to hear directly from parents. That’s a really big, new project for us that we’re planning on working on in the coming year. And we’re pretty excited about it. So there will be more to come on that. Maybe we can do another podcast with you in a year with an update on that. How about that?

Drew Catt: Yeah. That sounds great. Well, I think that about does it. So thank you so much for joining me, Colleen and Ayla.

Colleen Dippel: Yeah. Thanks for having us.

Ayla Dehghanpoor: Thanks for having us.

Drew Catt: To stay updated on the latest school choice research, legislative news, and more, please remember to subscribe to our EdChoice Chats podcast wherever you get your podcasts for more of our coverage of new school choice research, education reform policy chats and more. If social media is more your thing, follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, you can find us @edchoice. Thanks, again, for listening. And until next time, stay safe, and take care.