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Families Empowered Founder and Executive Director, Colleen Dippel, spoke with education reporter Ericka Mellon to share tips for parents engaging in school choice. Read more of the interview, and the accompanying School Report Card section, here.

Q: What made you start Families Empowered in 2009?

A: I had obviously been involved with KIPP and then knowing Chris Barbic at YES (Barbic is the founder). I knew there was growing demand for these two charters. It just seemed like a natural question: Who helps these parents get into your schools? And they both said, ‘We don’t know. We don’t have the resources to do that.’ And I said, ‘Well, someone ought to help them.’

Q: So, are you trying to steer parents just to charter schools?

A: No, no. Really, for us to be effective, it can’t be about promoting a certain school agenda. We actually are model-agnostic. Our primary source of families is these charter wait-list parents. But we certainly work with any families who come to us.

Parents need to navigate a very complex choice system in Houston. It’s not our job to tell the parent what they should believe. It’s our job to try to connect families with as many schools and with accurate, actionable information — which is why we try to promote the Children at Risk ranking. We feel like when parents have information that’s accurate and actionable, they can engage more meaningfully in the market.

Q: Do you think we will ever return to students just going to their closest neighborhood school? Does that not work in the urban core anymore?

A: I think the ideal is that the parent has a school that’s close to their home, although we have parents who are looking for a school close to work.

Q: Can you share some secret tips?

A: (Laughs.) They’re not secret. Families with means know the rules of the game. The rules of the game with K-12, where you have a high choice environment, they’re the same rules that apply to college.

Our families generally don’t know the rules of the game. So, the tips for us are, start early. Start looking in the fall. Really, by late November/early December, start filling out your applications. Apply to three or more schools. Know the deadlines, and get your stuff in on time.

Q: You also recommend touring schools. What should parents look for?

A: Parents should ask to quietly sit in a classroom. Look at the instruction. The climate of the school, the culture of the school, is something that’s observable. How engaged are the students? Are they really interacting? You can sort of get that just peering through the window. Look at multiple classrooms. Is everything teacher-created and bought at the teacher supply store, or are they displaying student work? Does the school feel safe?

Q: Has the landscape changed since you started Families Empowered? It’s been several years now.

A: Yes. Each year demand increases. We’re seeing more demand in the outer suburbs. That was crystal clear last year.