Researchers have found that what parents do with children in the home has a critical impact on what teachers are able to achieve in the classroom. To help build communication between home and school, a program in Sacramento, California, trains teachers in the art of home visitation.
A few years ago, Jocelyn Graves, of Sacramento, California, was shocked to learn that her fourth-grade son lacked some very basic reading skills. She would look at his report cards and see how well he was doing, but they did not show the reading problems that had been there all along.
In a large community such as Sacramento, it might not have been surprising if a few other parents were faced with the same news Graves learned. But now, a school system in Sacramento has introduced a program to catch children who lack essential skills before they fall through the cracks. The program, created by the Sacramento Area Congregations Together (ACT) Parent/Teacher Project, bridges the communication gap between school and community by training teachers to conduct home visits.
In many school districts, parents are afraid to speak their minds at school and teachers don't feel comfortable heading into communities they perceive as unsafe. Because parents are hesitant to approach teachers with questions, teachers often believe parents don't care about the students' education. Recognizing that, the Sacramento City Unified School District decided three years ago that something needed to be done.
School superintendent Jim Sweeney was prepared to introduce a new program, but he wasn't in a rush to adopt any old program that came by his desk. "We were in our third year of dramatic school reform district wide. [The program] was not done out of desperation. It was more like a big new idea, the right thing to do," Sweeney told Education World.
As part of the program, teachers of younger students typically schedule one-hour visits at each child's home two times a year. With older students, who usually have a team of teachers, one designated teacher gathers information from all the teachers on the team and provides an all-encompassing report for the parents of selected students. Teachers receive a stipend for their efforts.
Conversations during the visits often include the student, but the primary importance is building a relationship with the parents. Teachers ask parents their feelings about the school and what strategies they recommend in their children's education. Parents are given a packet of information on how to access the school and a list of frequently asked questions.
LeVearne Harris, a first-grade teacher at Susan B. Anthony Elementary School in South Sacramento, had experience with home visitation programs while she was teaching in Indiana. She welcomed the program's implementation in her school with open arms.
"When I first heard about it, I thought what a great idea," said the 11-year teaching veteran.
Harris said her visits are focused on the parents. They are an attempt to open the lines of communication. It's a good way to get to know parents, she said. Harris asks the parents about their background, how long they have lived in the area, and other pertinent questions. Then she shares what she expects from herself in the classroom, what she expects from the parents, and what she expects from the children. The key to the visits is giving the parents an opportunity to explain what they expect from the teacher, Harris told Education World. The dialogue helps clear any misconceptions anyone might have.
Before the program's inception, the only time many parents visited the school was when they dropped their children off in the morning. But now, Harris said, parents feel welcome to drop in and to ask questions. She also gets more phone calls now than she did before.
"[The home visits] make the parent comfortable to ask questions," she said. "It has made a huge difference. The parent-teacher relationship has gotten much better and so has the student-teacher relationship, because the parent and teacher are communicating."
Parent Jocelyn Graves thinks the home visits are very valuable. "This is helping us keep on top of our children's education. This way you know exactly what is going on with your child before the parent-teacher conferences," Graves told Education World. The program supplements two annual parent-teacher conferences held at the school.
Graves said the home visitation program creates a stronger partnership between the parent and teacher. "It makes parents co-educators. It strengthens the relationship between the parent, community, and school ... all to improve the quality of education for the child," she said.
Her son's reading problems were discovered before the visitation program was implemented, but Graves knows they would have been caught far earlier if the program had been available at that time.
There are no specific guidelines as to how children are chosen to participate in the program. Although all K-3 students are part of the program, the teachers make the determination for older students based on who might benefit most from participation.
When the program was piloted, the lower-achieving students were targeted. Graves said she could see a big difference between the relationships with parents and teachers. "They are not afraid to call up a teacher," she said. "Parents are now more apt to get involved."
The program has been so successful that Graves and ACT member Sandy Smith recently took a trip to Kansas City, Missouri, to give a presentation about the home visits.
For more than 30 years, educational researchers have shown the link between socioeconomic status and student achievement, Smith said. That research shows socioeconomic status is not always a clear indicator of student achievement.
"What those researchers have found is that what parents do with children in the home has a critical impact on what teachers are able to achieve in the classroom," she said. The information teachers glean from seeing how a child lives can be very helpful in understanding and working with the child.
In late 1997, Smith and her colleagues began to look at the relationships between parents and teachers. In most cases, only a small number of teachers had contact with parents. Smith paraphrased one parent they talked with, saying, "If you come to my house on my turf, I wouldn't be afraid to ask questions or to be honest with you."
In spring 1998, parents and teachers proposed the home visit program to the school board. The board agreed to fund nine of the district's lowest-achieving schools at $20,000 each. The funding pays stipends to teachers for each home visit. According to Sweeney, the funding came from the Voluntary Integration Program and federal Title I money.
In the meantime, ACT developed the model, trained teachers, coordinated with principals, provided funds for an evaluation, and arranged for the evaluation, Smith said.
"A partnership was formed around a home-visit model we all believed would create a systematic strategy to change the way the two most important people in a child's life would relate to one another," she said.
In the first year, the program included seven elementary schools and two middle schools. ACT trained 250 teachers and conducted more than 3,100 home visits. In the second year, the project increased to 13 schools, with 195 more teachers trained and 2,000 additional home visits. The program is expected to reach the high school level next year, with an overall count of 20 schools participating.
"These visits affected the lives of countless children, because when parents work better with their children, the parents can also help other siblings in the household," Smith said.
At the beginning of the school year, teachers involved in the program are asked to visit at least 20 children in their classroom, Smith said. The second home visit is intended to give parents strategies that will help the child be better prepared for the spring testing.
"Children and parents have a more positive and confident feeling about school," she said. "Students now report that they feel more cared about and that they now are excited to come to school. Some feel they are more prepared and confident knowing that both home and school are going to help them."
Test scores for the elementary schools have increased 6.5 points in reading and 9.8 points in math. Smith said classroom behavior is improving and attendance has been boosted since the program was implemented.
Sweeney is completely behind this project. "My visits to parents convinced me that we need to go the extra mile and reach way out to our parents. The parent visitation program has made a difference in our school district," he told Education World.
Article by Ryan Francis
Copyright © 2006 Education World