Passport to Success


Community Leader Spotlight: Families In Schools

Oscar CruzAs President & CEO of the California-based nonprofit Families In Schools (FIS), Oscar Cruz believes strongly that “families care deeply, want the best, and are working every day to create a better life for their children.” That’s why Cruz and FIS focus on helping families navigate the systemic barriers that often prevent parental involvement, particularly for low-income immigrant families.

Since 2000, FIS has helped more than 20,000 low-income students and parents navigate the road to college through its many programs. Currently, FIS partners with more than 400 schools and organizations state and nationwide to help families fulfill their role as their child's first teacher.

America’s Promise spoke with Cruz to learn about how FIS works to engage families and communities. Read the full spotlight below to hear more about the challenges facing parents and students, and the successes that make Cruz most proud.

How does your work help create a GradNation for all?

A college education has become the 21st century gateway to a better life and the American Dream. Yet for most low-income, first-generation students, the path to a bachelor’s degree is long, indirect, and uncertain—their middle-class ticket, in effect, revoked. The profound gap in college access and equity for these students begins early and endures through every step along their journey.

Within the national debate on how to increase college graduates, a key actor is missing—the families of those students being served. Usually, the families are perceived as “obstacles” in helping first generation students access and complete a post-secondary education.

2013 Excellence Awards in Parent Engagement.
2013 Excellence Awards in Parent Engagement.

FIS was built on the strong believe that families care deeply, want the best, and are working every day to create a better life for their children. However, low-income immigrant families often face institutional challenges that prevent their full engagement.

From bureaucratic systems and language barriers to plain racism, families get a strong message: stay out. This is where FIS comes in. FIS provides capacity-building to education staff and leaders on family engagement best practices, culturally relevant strategies, and advocates for polices that promote authentic engagement of families in education decision-making. The mission of FIS is to involve parents and communities in their children’s education to achieve lifelong success.

What successes in your community are you most proud of?

In Los Angeles, FIS has partnered with Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD) and its Gear-Up programs to provide support for engaging families on how to create a college-going culture. An external evaluation found statistically significant improvements in parents’ and students’ confidence, knowledge, and communication about college. Gear-Up students are graduating and entering college at higher rates and engaging their families has been a strategy for success.

FIS is California’s standard-bearer for culturally relevant, high-quality parent engagement and has received numerous awards, including White House recognition as a “Bright Spot in Hispanic Education” for its efforts to close the achievement gap for low-income, immigrant families. FIS understands and reflects the communities it serves: More than 85 percent of the board and staff are from underrepresented communities, and more than 75 percent of staff were the first of their families to graduate college.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your work?

First, the misconceived notion that low-income immigrant families don’t care about their children’s future.

Second, the lack of investment from schools and educational programs in high-impact family engagement practices.

What principles guide your work in education and youth development? 

2-Gen Approach.  Successful programs must address the needs of the families as a whole to have a high impact on children’s success. In addition, the role of parents in supporting the lifelong success of students happens along the education pipeline from cradle to college. The way families support their children can evolve as the needs of their children change, and families can help by supporting learning and advocating for their needs.

2-Gen ApproachDual capacity. FIS believes that both families and education staff and leaders have a shared responsibility to foster strong family-school partnerships. Many times, families are perceived as responsible for this work. That’s why FIS coined a two-part definition: “Parent Engagement as actions taken by schools to make it as easy as possible for parents to get involved; and Parent Involvement as actions taken by parents to support their child’s education at home and at school.” 

However, because schools and educational institutions are publicly funded, they also carry an added responsibility to engage proactively and partner with families. 

From Vision to Practice. Fostering strong school-parent partnerships requires addressing both policy and practice goals. Educational institutions must not only seek to incorporate parent engagement into their policies and regulations, but must also seek to institutionalize those goals at the day-to-day level by adjusting practices and budget allocations. 

Describe what makes your work unique in three words or phrases. 

  • Advocacy + Capacity Building = Change
  • Parents are their children’s first teacher and life-long advocates
  • Education institutions have a responsibility to engage families to support student success

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