Education Futures Podcast 21: Families Empowered

by | Oct 20, 2020 | Education Futures Podcast, Featured

“We’re teaching parents the rules of a game they didn’t even know they were playing.”

Families Empowered, a non-profit organization in Texas, helps families understand all the different educational options so they can make the best decision for their students. In this conversation, Dr. Rob Reynolds talks with Zulean Cruz-Diaz and Ayla Dehghanpoor of Families Empowered about how the work they do and the conversations they have with families have changed in light of COVID-19.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher.

Full Transcript

Rob Reynolds:

Hi everyone. This is Rob Reynolds. I’m the executive director with TEL Education, and I’m very happy today to be joined by Zulean Cruz-Diaz and Ayla Dehghanpoor from Families Empowered. This is going to be a tremendous podcast. I’m glad you’re listening to it. And I’m really glad that Zulean and Ayla have been able to join us today. I’m going to let them start off and they can take turns talking about Families Empowered. This is particularly important in the situation we find ourselves both in the United States and the world, but also in education. And as families really look to take control of the opportunities for their children to provide them the very best opportunities possible to be successful in life, in their careers and everything they do. So with that said, in that brief context Zuly and Ayla, I’m going to just turn it over to you for a second, and then I’ll probably have some follow-up questions, but why don’t you just give us all a sense of what Families Empowered is about, what you do, and to some extent, how both of you got involved in this?

 

Zulean Cruz-Diaz:

Yeah, of course. So thank you for having us on Rob. It’s a pleasure being able to talk with you. And so Families Empowered is a nonprofit that’s been around for around 10 years or so. And so we support families throughout mainly all of Texas, but we specialize in Houston, San Antonio and in Austin. And so we have always been very connected to families specifically because that is who we serve. We are a parent-serving organization that helps families find the best suited schools for them. And we don’t say that we specifically support a certain type of education. We support all types of educations, just because every individual, every student learns differently and different things for even siblings, right? For one sibling, they may do really great in Montessori and for others, they may do really great in a traditional setting. And so we just try to help parents find the right schools that fit for them and their families.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Go ahead, Ayla.

 

Ayla Dehghanpoor:

I just wanted to echo on what Zulean said that at Families Empowered we work for families. We provide three one-on-one personalized service directly to families. We meet them where they’re at. We operate in English and Spanish. We really … it’s a very important part of our organization to be able to offer parents support in their native language. And that’s something that we work really hard at. So all of our resources are always provided in both English and Spanish. Both whether you call us on the phone, if you’re reading an email we send out, if you’re looking at a flyer we put together, we really strive to make the information that we’re sharing with families accessible and actionable and accurate.

So we are really helping parents work through all of their education options as best that we can, based on their individual needs. Kind of like Zulean said, we are model agnostic. We don’t think that there’s one school better than another. We think that the right school for your kid is the one that works for them, no matter what kind of school that is. And so that means that we support public schools, private schools, public charter schools, homeschooling, and now we’re doing one of work with online schools. So no matter what your needs are for your kids, we’re here to help guide you through that process.

And that’s really important because it can be so confusing, right? Finding a school that actually works for your kid is way harder than it sounds. It sounds like something that should be simple, but unfortunately it’s not. And I can attest to that. I joined the Families Empowered team about two years ago, and I came from print publishing. So I was learning the world of education, kind of fresh, and goodness, I saw our entire team … We’ve got people with masters and working on their PhDs and it was tough for us to understand all of it and we do it full time. That’s what we do all day everyday, is work through this.

So imagine a family trying to figure it out, whether they’ve moved, whether their kid is just struggling and they need to be in a different type of classroom. That’s what we’re here to provide. And we really want to make sure that there is equity in education, that parents are all receiving the same type of opportunities for their kids. And one thing that we like to say is that in a lot of cases we’re teaching parents, the rules of the game that they didn’t even know they were playing.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Oh, that’s incredible. And what a really important service to be providing at any time, and particularly now. One of the things that strikes me is that, and I look back to as a parent and then as a child, the lack of choices there seemed to be for anybody two or three decades ago or four decades ago. Public school for pretty much everybody, a few went to private school. It wasn’t good necessarily, but it was very simple and there were just no choice and post-internet everything that’s happening, and also just the way education has evolved, there are so many rich opportunities for children of all ages now, and for you to be able to do what you do to really guide families with their children to the best opportunity for them is so critical.

I mean, how many parents today have children and they all want what’s best for their kids. We all do, but just for lack of knowledge, can’t get them to the right place. They just don’t even know what’s out there. And to your point, it’s a lot. I mean, what are your goals? What are you? So I have a question. So when let’s say I’m a parent and I have two children, I’ve got a one in the fifth grade and one in the eighth grade, we’ll just choose that. And I come to you and I say, “Look, I, for whatever reason, I don’t know what is the best for my kids. So, and I’m going to work with you.” So do you then do some kind of a diagnostic I’m guessing or something. Or an inquiry with me, and how does that work exactly from a process perspective, to make sure that you’re getting the right information for me to get them to the right place?

 

Ayla Dehghanpoor:

Yeah. So it’s actually pretty simple. We don’t necessarily have a set of questions to ask you. It starts with listening. That’s really a cornerstone of the service that we provide, is actually listening to parents. And that extends across our entire organization. But specifically when a parent calls in, or we meet them in a [inaudible 00:07:17] at an event, which is something we used to do last year, not so much this year, but lots of rich virtual events nowadays. But whenever we’re talking to a parent that is needing that one-on-one help, we listen to them. We listen to, “Okay, tell me why you are calling us today. Tell me what’s going on with your kids. How old are they? What are they like in the classroom? What do you want for them?” And we just really listen to them. Then a lot of times, that takes up the bulk of the conversation, but from there, we help provide them with the resources that they need based on what they’ve said.

So it’s different for every family. So I can’t tell you one thing. Some families it’s as simple as “I need a school with transportation.” For other families it’s, a big one is bullying. And so they’re really interested in finding a school that has a very proactive approach to bullying and that type of thing. For some families it really can get into the weeds. Some families are very concerned about how the bathrooms are set up, for example, that’s that we hear. So it really is different for every single family and every single kid, which is kind of goes to our mission in making sure that those families can actually find the school that works for their kids. So it all starts with listening.

And then from there, we help provide the parents with the resources that they need. We connect them with schools, we connect them with school finders. And from there, we encourage them to make the decision. We’re not here to tell you where your country to go to school. We don’t know your kid that, you know your kid as a parent. You are the only person qualified to make that decision for your child. And we very strongly believe that. So what we do is we give you those resources that you need to actually make those decisions, because if you don’t have the information and the knowledge, how are you ever supposed to make that decision? You can’t. It’s impossible. And so from there, we just put you as a parent in touch with what you need to make that choice.

Sometimes there’s follow up conversations that need to happen if they get stuck. But we provide people with questions they should ask schools. We always encourage people when you can to go tour a school to get the feel. We give parents will sort of like top tips that you can do to get started on that journey. And that has been one of the things that we’ve done during the pandemic that sort of changed a little bit is we had to write a list of questions you should ask now that school has changed due to COVID-19, because that did change the set of questions you should be asking the school. So all of those kinds of resources we then provide to you based on what you’ve told us. We really listen to parents and kind of provide them the resources they need based on what they’ve told us.

 

Rob Reynolds:

That’s amazing. And what, again, what an incredibly valuable source of information and guidance that parents today need. And as they try to work to give their kids the best opportunities possible. And again, the world seems increasingly complex. I would say it’s certainly increasingly chaotic and to have a consistent listening source that will also provide the information that [inaudible 00:10:36] is just so valuable.

I know that we’ve kind of talked about it just indirectly, but obviously COVID-19 has changed the landscape in so many ways for education today, particularly in the K-12 side, although it’s equally impactful in higher ed, just in different ways. So I know you’ve done research. You obviously have an incredible amount as an organization, incredible amount of experience in watching this from the frontline, right there in front, seeing what people are doing, how they’re trying to adjust. So can you talk a little bit about, so we’ll start there about kind of what you’ve heard from parents or what your research has shown and how the shift is happening and what new types of concerns may be coming up and how this is really impacting parents in general, as they’re looking for solutions.

 

Zulean Cruz-Diaz:

Yeah, well, during the beginning of the pandemic we had actually, because of our family success specialists, who are the people that are answering the calls, having, forming those relationships with families, we’re able to hear firsthand how you were saying and listen to what families were facing. And so at the very beginning of the pandemic, it was all just very fast. It was very reactive, right? People were going out of work, they needed money to pay their bills. And so we, as an organization, don’t do that, but we have those relationships with families and we know what families were most affected. And so we were able to partner with another organization called Stand Together, and we were able to give 100 families, $500 emergency relief fund. And it was literally directed to their bank account. They were able to use the money however they needed to.

And that alone … I was on the phone too with a couple of families and they were like, “I didn’t know how I was going to be able to feed my kids. We had no food at home.” And that was such a shock to me having a … not being able to have food, right? Like not being able to feed your own children. And so hearing those stories, we have just recently collected 120 new pandemic stories just this month. And so we are continuing to see those shifts of how, like at the beginning it was emergency relief. How it’s kind of started to how it started to shift into, do we start changing our children to different schools, or maybe they need new technology.

Maybe they need wifi connections into now, like, okay, I have four kids at home. We have a three bedroom apartment. How am I going to have everybody on Zoom calls? And are we going to put one person in the closet? Are we, where is everybody going? And so there’s certain things that come up and it happens, right? Like, okay, people need desks now. Right. Kindergartners can not necessarily always be on the floor. Sometimes they need to write things out, right. So there are new things that are kind of coming along as we talk to parents that have just arisen and how different it has changed from the very beginning of the pandemic.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Do you find that parents, and I certainly have my own experience talking to them, but you do it a lot more. How are you finding parents and families in terms of their overall attitude coping with the change? Is it, and I know it varies. It’s not one attitude, but do you find people mostly fearful, just kind of resilient or where are they falling on the spectrum?

 

Zulean Cruz-Diaz:

I think it’s really hard to say exactly where. Most parents are super resilient. They are hard working people. And so they just they’re yes, everybody, right. Everybody is between a rock and a hard place right now, but everybody is trying to find a way. Sometimes it’s just making sure they’re rounding up their family, so-and-so I need you to take care of the kids this day. So-and-so’ll take care of them this day. Or just making sure they have that strong community around them support them. And it’s just very interesting how creative parents get, I’m not a parent yet, but I was talking with other parents. I’m like, “How do you normally do, before pandemic, how do you always do pickup time?” When normally jobs are from nine to five, right? Or from eight to five, but kids get off at 3:30 sometimes. And so it’s just so interesting to see how parents adapt and what families really do.

 

Rob Reynolds:

It’s amazing to me to watch people’s … I think there’s so many different impacts that the pandemic has had. The impact on people’s schedules. I see that from the people that work in our organization, friends, et cetera, especially when you have families where both couples work and now you have kids at home. And so trying to do all the creative scheduling so somebody’s there and I’ve got, and especially in the spring before schools could even adapt to more coherent schedules. When some of them were just trying to say, we’re going to do it all online now. And you might’ve had, in some places, I’m not going to say that everybody was doing this kind of crazy stuff. But we did have one parent here in our organization where they had a five-year-old who was scheduled for four Zoom sessions in a day. And you’re trying to manage that plus work.

And you’re trying to, both of you, working in different places, one in the city, one close to our office. And it’s really … and I like that about resilience. I always feel like humans in general, we do adapt and we try to embrace, we moments like this help us reset our priorities sometimes. And at the end of the day, it’s about our family, our community. We focus on our kids, we do what it takes, we band together. So on that note, what have you seen, or have you seen … I won’t, unless I prescribe the answer here, have you seen families, good examples of families kind of pulling together across multiple families to provide that support for their kids?

 

Ayla Dehghanpoor:

That’s a really interesting question because in lots of cases, yes, but the nature of our work and just education in general is that every kid IN every family is different. So for some families, working in a pod is not the right answer, but for lots of families, it is. And what has been very interesting is that in a way, this pandemic has sort of leveled the playing field. All of a sudden, every single family is sort of in the same position, as far as kind of getting a firsthand look at how their kids are experiencing school. And like you said, that happened very early on, especially in the spring when every family was at home, every kid was at home. We do a lot of survey work within Families Empowered because like I said, a main cornerstone of our organization is that we listen to parents and we pivot our work based on what they’re telling us that they need.

Back in April, when we first surveyed families, 41% of the parents that we surveyed actually said that after experiencing distance learning with their kids, their opinion of their current school changed, which is a huge number of parents. And we’re seeing a huge move towards homeschooling, towards pods, and I will say that was already a little bit of a trend before, parents moving towards homeschooling and being interested in homeschooling. But now that they essentially, in the beginning, everyone was a homeschool family. I think that a lot of parents are really seeing that it’s more accessible for them than they thought it might be. And so that has, of course we’ve seen a lot more of that from parents and a lot more from parents looking into, “How can I create a pod?”

And that being said, a pod situation is not always accessible to the most resource constrainED families. And so, we definitely are still here to help families figure out the right solution for their kid. And for lots of families a pod does work, but for lots of them, it doesn’t. So that’s why it’s always so hard for us to pin down and say, the majority of parents are doing this because that never really does hold true. Everyone’s unique.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Right. No, and I was thinking just then about through the spring, I think a lot of people who don’t understand how schools work a little bit and Title I funding, et cetera, the things that go in to a public school for example, could didn’t understand the signs in front of a school that still said that nobody was attending that said, pick up your breakfast or your lunch here, because they, a lot of people don’t realize that is a primary source of food for part of the day, Monday through Friday for a percentage of families. And so that was really critical that that stayed available. And that’s a consideration whether you’re doing a, what you’re going to do, to what is your dependency on certain services? That may not be may or may not be available if you go in a community pot or something like that.

So, and that just goes back to your point for both of you Ayla and Zulean that every family is entirely different and they have entirely different needs. About kind of, I think about the homeschooling and the kind of the growth of some of the pods that, and the pods and other kinds of micro school alternatives that form. In your opinion, and again, I’m not pinning any of us down to get published on whatever you say here, but in your opinion and what your experience has been so far, what would you say are some of the, you’ve talked about a little bit, but some of the motivating factors that you see that really lead that? Is it flexibility? Is it no, I think I have a little more, I can add more diversity and a little more, just what my students need. My kids need a little bit more by taking more control or working it this way. What are you seeing as some of the motivating factors for that?

 

Ayla Dehghanpoor:

You know, it, again, it’s different for every family, but I would say the leading motivation is whether or not the situation is conducive to learning for that student. We know that all parents love their kids, all parents at their court, no matter what, no matter where you live, no matter what tax bracket you’re following, you love your kid. You want your kid to succeed. We know this is true. And this is true among all parents, but we especially know because we’ve done a lot of survey and data collection that resource constrained parents really care about choosing the right school for their kids. And that’s true of all parents. And when we collected tons of data about this and about, well, what is the motivating factor? Why do you need Families Empowered’s help? Why are you looking to change schools?

It’s a big question we ask, “Okay, why do you want to change schools?” 94% of parents that we asked that question to, rated strong academics as their main concern. So it really is, for most parents, I would say one of the top motivators, of course there are a lot of them, but one of the top one is whether or not the curriculum and the format is actually conducive to learning for their child and whether or not they feel that their child is really getting those strong academics that they want for them to prepare them. Kind of like how you said at the very beginning for their future to be successful and to go on to be the best type of productive people that they can be when they grow up.

 

Rob Reynolds:

I’m guessing that the chaos that’s caused by something like a pandemic makes parents cognizant in a new way of how important that preparation is. Because there will be another pandemic event. There’ll be other things. And is my child prepared academically, socially, in all the ways that I can buttress them so they’re ready that they can make it through if I’m not there when they’re out on their own. And I think it becomes a … I think it’s woke, it has caused some people to wake up. Let’s put it that way. About, “Hey, I’ve been cruising through. I cruised through, my kids are cruising through. It’s all good. Hey, wait a minute. Are they really ready? Is this really? Because man, this was tough for me. I don’t know how they would do. Or am I giving them everything they can to make it in life?”

 

Zulean Cruz-Diaz:

Right.

 

Ayla Dehghanpoor:

I would say it’s just another level of understanding for parents now that you know, everyone has experienced at home learning, whether their kids are back in the classroom today or not, because we all know kids. You ask the kid, they come home, how was school today?

 

Rob Reynolds:

Fine.

 

Ayla Dehghanpoor:

It was fine. It was fine. And so, it has provided them an extra level and layer of understanding for parents about, “Okay, well how really was school today?”

 

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah.

 

Zulean Cruz-Diaz:

And I think it’s interesting because we sometimes are kind of living in the moment like right now, this is happening. But if we take a step back, right. If we look and see education is really involved and really connected to a lot of other social aspects in life, right?

 

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah.

 

Zulean Cruz-Diaz:

A pretty sad, but true fact is that depending on the third grade reading level and how many students have passed that third grade reading level is how many beds they’re going to have in a jail. Right? So we have to make sure that our students and our children are getting the best education possible and not just kind of passing along throughout the years and they graduate high school, but they don’t know how to read. We want to make sure that every parent knows that they can have their child in the best environment they need to be able to have those successful individuals and grow them into people that we want them to be. Or, well, I guess that’s kind of, that’s not true. They’re individuals, I need to figure out what they want to be, but at least be able to give them a solid foundation.

 

Rob Reynolds:

And to have successful lives and have a positive impact on the community. I mean, that’s what we want. We want to be those people. We want our children to be those people. That’s what makes it work for everybody. All right. Now I’m going to do what I do at the end of the, sometimes, I’m going to give both of you a magic wand. Okay? I’ll let you both go. You have your magic wand now. You can wave it. You can make something happen to improve the path forward for kids, education, et cetera. What would you do with your magic wand? I’ll give you a second here. I’m filling some space so you can think about it, but it doesn’t have to be anything big. You’re already doing so much to have an incredible impact on families. And you’ve already talked about these things, but there’s one thing out there that you could make available for families, for kids or change the landscape in some way. What would you do?

 

Zulean Cruz-Diaz:

Ayla, do you want to go first or do you want me to go?

 

Ayla Dehghanpoor:

Sure. No, I can. I can jump in. If I could wave a magic wand and give every parent the power of educated choice to be able to make choices that they’re knowledgeable about, I would, because in so many cases, it really just comes down to the fact that a parent has five schools around them. And they only know about one and their kid is having a hard time and they just, they don’t understand why. And it’s heartbreaking every single time.

But what always sticks with me is when I started with Families Empowered, we had a mom and her son come in and they were talking about their experience. And this mom, it broke my heart. She said, “I thought I was failing my son.” She had moved him around. They were moving to different neighborhoods. At one point sleeping on a friend’s couch so they could use her address. And her kid just wasn’t improving academically the way she knew that he needed to be. And she thought she was a failure as a mom. And that’s heartbreaking because it turns out she had a great school. One of our great Apply Houston partners, but she had a great school right there. And once her son was enrolled in the school, he started doing better. The school gave him the kind of attention he needed.

And it really came down to the fact that she just didn’t know where to look for school. She thought she only had one option. And so if I could just wave a magic wand and all of a sudden everybody, when they become a parent gets a little booklet that says, here are all your school options, here’s where you can find them to be able for every single parent to make that kind of educated decision for their kid. I would.

 

Rob Reynolds:

That’s awesome.

 

Zulean Cruz-Diaz:

And that’s so funny. I was literally thinking on the same track, Ayla, I think I went like a little step forward. So I was thinking that it’d be great if we didn’t necessarily zone schools the way we do. Right. So that when parents went to enroll students, they had a list of different schools and maybe like a little description next to each of them. And they decide, okay, “I want my child to go to this school.” And so that way the parent from the very beginning has a guide book, kind of what Ayla said, but also knows that it’s their choice as to where they put their children. And that way, if something isn’t working one year, or if we tried one thing, it’s easy to move them to something else that would be best for them. And that way parents have that right, right. Parents have the right to decide where they want their kids to go to. They shouldn’t have to go to the school they are zoned to if they live in an area that isn’t the best area in town. Right. And so we want to make sure that all students have that access.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Well, I think that’s a great comment from both of you on kind of wrap this up, because what you’re talking about, this empowering families, and if you could wave a magic wand, it would be to make sure that every family was empowered to know what was available and to have the information to make the right choice for their kids. And I just want to thank both of you so much, not just for being here today and talking with us briefly and sharing what you do, but for the work that you do and the service you’re providing families, because it’s a mission like this that makes a true difference. And it makes a difference as you know, in a maybe a very young life today. And it’s sometimes just some people say, “Well, what difference would that make?”

Well, that person grows up. And every one of them that grows up and then has a better third grade reading level reduces a bed in a correctional center. It makes someone be a better contributor, but more important, they’re happy. They’re fulfilled and that impacts the entire community around them. So just thank you so much for what you do and the service you provide because it is right on the front line. It makes a huge difference. I know you’re blessing all the families you’ve come into contact with. And I want to thank everyone for listening to this podcast. It’s been terrific. Zulean Cruz-Diaz and Ayla Dehghanpoor from Families Empowered. And thank you again for your work. So long everybody.

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