Choice Conversation: Colleen Dippel
Colleen Dippel is the founder of Families Empowered, a group that provides education resources for families in the Houston area. In this week’s Conversation, Colleen dished on helpful tips for first-time planners, and the fulfillment of bringing parents together to discuss school choice.
Tell us a little bit about your role at Families Empowered, and what motivated you to start the organization
I founded Families Empowered because it was clear to me that there were thousands of low-income families on wait lists at high performing charter schools, low income families looking for high quality schools, and there was no organization in Houston to help these families out. We provide an abundance of resources that help connect schools with parents, and parents with schools. We started by helping 8,000 families in 2009. That number is already up to 15,000 three years later.
How did you initially get involved in National School Choice Week?
Like Families Empowered, National School Choice Week is all about supporting families that exercise school choice in any of its forms: high-performing charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, digital and virtual schools, and homeschooling. It brings Houston-area parents together to highlight the issue of school choice, and raise awareness about the need for quality schools for low income and working-class people. Working with National School Choice Week makes sense because we, too, want to bring parents together and give them an opportunity to hear from local community leaders and elected officials. We also want to hear what aspects of school choice those parents care about, and what they hope to do about them.
Image: A mom and her kids celebrate school choice at Colleen's 2012 National School Choice Week event.
What do you have planned for NSCW 2013?
We are planning a rally in Houston on February 3rd, which is the start of the Texas legislative session at the end of National School Choice Week 2013. We are partnering with the Texas Charter Schools Association, KIPP, YES Prep and other school organizations. Our hope is to get the attention of not only state representatives and senators, but also of local school board members, and local elected officials. We want to demonstrate with the event that there’s a growing demand for school choice that’s diverse, widespread and encompasses people from all over.
What is your most rewarding NSCW memory?
It was extremely heartwarming at the event we did last year to look out and see the 400 parents wearing yellow scarves who showed up on a cold day with their kids on little notice to voice their support. They have busy lives, but they took the time out of their weekend to come to a rally to support their school, National School Choice Week, and their right to have a choice. Parents love their children and they want the very best for their children. All of the parents there want to be engaged with the schools in a meaningful way and believe that school choice gives them the power to have a seat at the table. Love was a common thread, and the hope for the better future.
What are the most important aspects of school choice in your area locally?
We’ve been blessed in Houston to have very high performing charter schools for some time now. I wish we could humanize the issues and have a more responsible and thoughtful conversation about other forms of school choice, like scholarships for low-income families. I think that we’re doing a disservice to low income parents when we take all options off the table for philosophical reasons. We have to talk about what’s best for kids. Philosophy is great for a philosophy class, but there are some parents and children who are getting a raw deal in our schools – not all of them, but some. And the ones most disaffected by what’s not working are the poor. I think we have to have a mature, thoughtful conversation about providing opportunities to families who are stuck in a school that isn’t right for them.
What’s the most important thing you want to get across to concerned parents?
We certainly have helped thousands of parents understand that they have more than one or two options. In fact, they have many options. We meet with parents every day. National School Choice Week has given us a broader platform on which to engage these parents. While there are those parents who are just looking for a high quality school, there are tons of frustrated parents that want to be part of a bigger movement and have a more collective voice. Families Empowered and National School Choice Week do this for parents who have been marginalized, and who want to make their voices heard.
What advice would you give to other NSCW planners out there who may be holding an event this year for the first time?
I would tell first time event organizers to focus on the positive and find partners to coordinate their event with. Having partnerships is not only helpful, but it gives you a lot of credibility. Also, it helps to have a clear goal and a clear message. Be sure to manage your expectations, and understand that getting people to come to a big event takes a lot of work. I would also suggest working with the NSCW staff for support, because they have resources that you may not have, just like your event partners might.