A previous School Connection Fair hosted by Families Empowered. Courtesy photo.
A previous School Connection Fair hosted by Families Empowered. Courtesy photo.

Traditional school. Private school. Magnet program. In-district charter. Independent charter.

With all of those choices now in the mix for San Antonio families, education has become more flexible – and more confusing – than ever.

On Nov. 1, the School Connection Fair, hosted by Families Empowered, will offer two key services to those seeking to make the most of their educational options. It will provide a direct point of contact for families and schools. It will also bring a representative portrait of the school choice landscape into one place, so that families can maximize their knowledge base.

“That empowers them to engage in the marketplace of school choice,” said Barbie Leal-Hallam, manager of schools and community partnerships for Families Empowered.

Before the surge of the school choice movement, children who were not a good fit for their zoned public school had two expensive options: move or go to private school. Now, parents can choose from a variety of emphases, teaching styles, and class sizes, all from the comfort of their own zip code.

Barbie Leal-Hallam, courtesy photo
Barbie Leal-Hallam. Courtesy photo

The trick is knowing what choices you have. And often the very families who would benefit most from charter schools including KIPP Public Charter Schools and IDEA Public Schools don’t know that they exist. Even with door-to-door public relations efforts of individual schools, it takes a lot of time and energy to get a complete picture of the school choice market. It helps to be educated and empowered, as well, which means that many of the families navigating the school choice market most adeptly are most likely those who are accustomed to having options in the first place.

But what about the families who have never experienced the luxury of school choice? Where do they start? That’s where Leal-Hallam steps in.

Families Empowered is new to San Antonio. Leal-Hallam set up shop in August and hit the ground running, looking for school partners. She called every San Antonio school in the TEA database herself.

It is not surprising that the entire Choose to Succeed portfolio of schools was ready to participate. Choose to Succeed is responsible for recruiting many of the most recognizable charter schools to San Antonio, and it played a large role in bringing Families Empowered, as well. What may be more surprising is that The San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD), with its own growing menu of choices, jumped on board.

Families_Empowered_Logo (2)

“There are a lot of really great choices coming out of the districts,” said Leal-Hallam.

She said she hopes these initial bridges can be fortified into real conduits for collective impact. In Houston, where Families Empowered originated, the Spring Branch district has gained national attention for the cooperative attitude of its charter and district schools.

School choice advocates like Leal-Hallam believe that healthy competition can strengthen the offerings schools bring to our city’s children. They also acknowledge the unhealthy, zero-sum mentality that often drives the competition to fill classrooms.

Ultimately, Leal-Hallam and Families Empowered is not overly concerned with schools’ enrollment anxiety. Her job is to let families know their choices. It is the schools’ task to be the kind of school that families end up choosing.

“We are Families Empowered, not ‘schools empowered,’” she said.

The connection fair on Nov. 1 will be the first of many hosted by Families Empowered. Traditional, private, charter, and magnet schools will all be present to share information with families.

To get on the invite list for Families Empowered events, contact the organization through its website. Associates of Families Empowered also actively reach out to families who have been waitlisted by charter, private, and magnet schools (Parents indicate on their application to Families Empowered partner schools if they would like their wait list status shared).

The goal, however is never to sell a particular school, but to engage parents and furnish them with information.

“We really want to create parent advocates,” said Leal-Hallam.

Parent advocates do not stop at enrollment, either. They take a lasting interest in their child’s education, assessing strengths and weaknesses in their education, and speak up when change is needed. This dynamic interaction between parents and schools will push schools to improve their performance. And it’s the students who will benefit.

The School Connection Fair will be held from 1-4 p.m. at The Neighborhood Place at 3014 Rivas St.

*Featured/top image: A previous School Connection Fair hosted by Families Empowered. Courtesy photo.

Related Stories:

Education Panel Spotlights Roles of Charter Schools, Public Schools, and Technology in the Classroom

Charter vs. Public Schools: Not a Zero Sum Game

Hip-Hop Lifting SAISD After-School Clubs

SAISD Connects With Parents for Healthier Students

School Competition–The Rising Tide That Lifts All Boats

Great Hearts Charter Coming to San Antonio: Tuition-Free, Secular, Classical School

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.