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Interview with Rachel González Martínez on the impact of Families In Schools’ Transition to College curriculum


Rachel González Martínez, Families In Schools

Rachel González Martínez,
Families In Schools

Families In Schools (FIS) provides schools and educational agencies with culturally-relevant family engagement curricula and advocacy tools to help families make informed choices and access quality educational opportunities. In 2018, Kresge’s Education Program awarded FIS $110,000 to share its “Transition to College” curriculum through professional development using a train-the-facilitator model. FIS grounds its training in adult learning theory and provides partners with actionable tools for engaging parents and families in college access and success. In 2018, the curriculum was featured at trainings in five cities: Providence, Rhode Island; Lincoln, Nebraska; Houston, Texas; Washington D.C., and Colorado Springs, Colorado. We checked in with Rachel González Martínez, Director of Training and Capacity Building at FIS, to discuss the impact of the “Transition to College” curriculum.


Kresge: Why is it so important to engage the family with respect to not only college access, but college success?

Rachel: The research shows that a family’s ability to communicate about academic expectations is the most effective way to encourage college-going while their child is in middle school and high school. It’s well documented that families can play an important role in students wanting to go to college, in applying and perhaps getting in. That is the key we’re trying to unlock. How do we keep students in college and help them graduate?

People often say when a first-generation student goes off to college, their whole family goes to college. Through this curriculum, how can we can help our families understand that even though they did not go to college, it is an important investment for their family’s future and for their child’s future? I think that message not only coming from school, but also coming from home, is a big deal, especially among our communities that are low-income, have many first-generation students, and among Latino and African American communities.

As we look at those communities, we know that family is very important. The parents’ perspectives and what they support is also often what’s important to the students. They might look to their parents to ask, ‘Is this okay?’ or ‘Is this something that you think I should do?’ If the family is prepared, has knowledge and the confidence to say, ‘Yes. We’re behind this 100 percent. We want to support you, even though we didn’t go to college,’ that can be very powerful.

We only have our students for a certain amount of time. In many cases, after 12th grade, they’re on their own. If we do a better job of preparing their parents, families or guardians to support them beyond our time with them, then they have that support system. It’s still continuing on the path with them. We know how powerful a parent’s voice can be.

Kresge: What prompted the creation of the Transition to College curriculum?

Rachel: “Transition to College” was one of those curriculum programs we felt there was a need to develop to help educators better support families, and in turn, better support students. A lot of our research and review of statistics lit a fire under us. The reality is that when you look at the statistics, more and more students are getting into college, but the numbers for retention and graduation are not changing. Those statistics, especially for low-income and first-generation college students, were the motivation for us to see if there was any way we could help better support those students once they moved into college. That inspired us to develop this curriculum.

We were very intentional in our development of the curriculum. We wanted to make sure that we weren’t just speaking from our experience. We did a needs assessment. We held focus groups with 12th graders, parents of 12th graders, college students and parents of college students.

We did an advisory group check-in with Southern California College Access Network members in which we talked to practitioners, educators, and others who work directly in the field. We wanted to know ‘What are the common challenges that your students bring?’ and ‘What are your families concerned about?’

It’s enlightening to sit down and ask folks what they need, what the needs that they see are, what the challenges are, what the concerns are, what they wish someone would have told them. Then, from that seeing how we can pull those things together to give our families what they really need to better support their children. What I always tell educators in training is that as hard as we work, if it’s not relevant to anyone, then why are we offering the workshop?

Kresge: To date, how many training facilitators have participated in trainings for the Transition to College curriculum?

Rachel: Roughly 220 educators. Those educators could be teachers, counselors, parent liaisons, administrators or nonprofit staff. We’ve even had college outreach staff participate. All participants are ready to or have started implementing the curriculum and facilitating directly with the families they serve.

Rachel González Martínez, Families in Schools
Rachel González Martínez leads “Transition to College” curriculum training.

Kresge: How many facilitators are you hoping to engage?

Rachel:  It’s hard to put a number on it because the reality is I want us to reach everyone. Really anyone who works with 12th graders and their families. Anyone who is interested in working with the families of 11th and 12th grade students and maybe trying a different way to prepare those students to be more successful in college.

Kresge:  Can you share observations about the different cities and communities that have participated thus far?

Rachel: Although each workshop was held in a major city, we had people from surrounding regions attend as well. Each time, we had a good mix of people from urban areas and rural areas working with all types of agencies and communities.

Some workshops stand out in my mind. In Colorado, we had some folks from a Native American tribe. One participant shared that at times she attends trainings that are not culturally-centered or relevant. She got emotional when describing how the curriculum was going to be beneficial for her community.

It was powerful to see that if you frame the curriculum around not necessarily telling people what to do and how to do things, but just asking questions and getting them to make conclusions on their own, it becomes something that they own. It can really have that effect of being relevant to a tribe in Colorado and their parents and families. We had similar observations from another participant in Rhode Island, which is an urban setting, and another from a participant who works in a migrant community in California’s Central Valley.

Kresge: What kind of advice would you give to educators and others interested in learning about working with families?

Rachel: As educators, a lot of us are in the field for the right reasons. Our hearts are in the right place. We want to work with students but maybe we were never trained to work with parents. It is a very different thing to work with adults than it is to work with children, or even with teenagers. It can be a little intimidating sometimes. My advice? First, put yourself in the shoes of families and remember that they are adult learners just like we are. What works for us as educators often will work for them too.

Second, consider the preparation you are putting into a presentation, a workshop or a meeting with a family. How can you prepare in a way that really makes them feel like their time is valued? Families show up if they feel valued. Be intentional and thoughtful about how the information is presented. Present it in a way that families can retain it and use it. If they feel like it’s fun, then they are learning something.

Third, think about building on assets. Our families aren’t empty vessels. They have knowledge and experience that we should value. We don’t want to talk to them like they don’t know anything. We always want to ask questions to better understand what they bring to the room so we can build on that. It’s important that we view our families as experts.

Fourth, make things interactive. Consider different learning styles and ensure there is room for dialogue and discussion. Don’t just give people answers. Help them to find the answers on their own. When you’re not there with them, they have the agency to work through a challenge on their own.

Fifth, maintain flexibility. Understand that there are some real barriers for our families that may block their ability to participate in a workshop. Maybe those challenges include transportation or childcare, or work schedules. What can we do to remove those barriers and help our families get the most out of what we are offering them?

Finally, provide action steps. Ensure your families walk away with something tangible. Make sure it’s clear there is something that we hope you can actually do now that you have more information.

Kresge: Is there anything else that we didn’t cover that you want to share?

Rachel: I cannot say enough about partnerships. As educators, this is our work. Family engagement is a part of our job. When we have that partner at home, to give that same message that our students are receiving from us at school, it will make our jobs easier, and help improve that student’s life.

This interview was edited for brevity. For more information about the “Transition to College” curriculum, please email [email protected].