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Home visits forge school, family links

From time to time, Education World updates and reposts a previously published article that we think might be of interest to administrators. 

Getting to better know students and their families can make parents powerful advocates in their children's education. Home visits can give teachers the insight they need to help all students succeed. Included: Descriptions of successful home visit programs.

Not long ago, a teacher calling a student's home meant trouble. A teacher showing up at a student's door meant big trouble.

Educators today are finding, however, that showing up at students' doors -- establishing a positive relationship with students' families -- is an important tool in school reform, particularly in low-income, urban districts where educators traditionally struggle to build parent involvement. Starting the year off with teacher visits to students' homes, with such visits serving as invitations to parents to become partners in their children's education, is, in fact, one of the easiest ways to establish relationships.

"This really, really works," said Melissa Brown, assistant superintendent for the Sacramento (California) City Unified School District, which began a voluntary teacher home visit program nine years ago. "In the beginning, it was very hard; the principals and the teachers thought they were too busy to develop those relationships. But we needed to embrace relationships that make everyone equal partners."

Building bridges

Particularly in districts with low-income, immigrant families who might be intimidated by the school system, home visits welcome parents into the education process, educators told Education World.

"It's the best relationship builder you can have," according to Jo-Lynn Nemeth, principal of McCoy Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri, which has been doing home visits for four years. "It's been a positive thing. Building relationships are key. Now we have 90 percent attendance at parent conferences. People call at the beginning of August to see when their home visits will be."

The insight gained from these visits literally can change a child's life. One Sacramento teacher visited the home of a student who had a history of failing to complete assignments. The teacher discovered during the visit that the only place the child had to do homework was the toilet seat, said Brown. The child had no materials at home, not even scissors. Now, the teacher provides tools in the classroom, so the child can do the assignments.

"After that visit, the child became more motivated, because the student knew the teacher cared," Brown added. "Those connections are the keys to success."

Sacramento's program was launched by Sacramento Area Congregations Together (ACT), a coalition of 30 faith-based groups seeking to improve the community. ACT members developed the format for the home visits, based on feedback from focus groups of parents and teachers, and they then trained teachers and principals in the format. The program grew to the point where teachers in some schools were doing two home visits a year, mostly in elementary schools.

"I was looking for ways to connect with parents and improve performance," said Gloria Hernandez, executive director of Sacramento ACT, and the former vice principal of Mark Hopkins Elementary School, formerly one of the lowest performing schools in the district. "I had a lot of meetings with a lot of parents who felt a disconnect with the education system. The parents were intimidated. This was a way to break down barriers between parents and teachers. Parents needed to know how to relate to teachers, and teachers how to relate to parents."

Funding initially came from the district, and then the state voted to provide money for teacher stipends to Sacramento and other districts, through the state's Nell Soto Parent/Teacher Involvement Program. Now ACT members train educators in other districts and states.

Training included parents explaining to teachers what they might see in students' homes and discussions of how to overcome cultural barriers.

"One of the main barriers was fear," Brown said. "Teachers feared for their health and safety. Teachers now go in pairs, the teacher plus another teacher, or support staff member. When possible, they visit during the day."

Visiting students' homes dispelled many of the ideas about low-income neighborhoods. "They could see if they came to visit us we were not drug addicts, alcoholics, or they would not get robbed," said Yesenia Solorzano, a parent. "It was more about sitting with the teachers and finding out what's going on."

Trainers also stressed that the purpose of the visit was for teachers to educate themselves about their students and their families.

"Initially, the teachers thought of the [home] meetings as briefings where they would tell the parents what they needed," said Peggy Colestro, senior program officer for the Ohio Children's Foundation. The foundation received a grant to develop a school readiness program for the Columbus public schools, and home visits were scheduled with the parents of entering kindergarteners in about ten neighborhoods in the district. The Columbus teachers were trained by Sacramento ACT members.

"It was extremely helpful and eye-opening," Colestro said. "The training was about teachers listening to parents and learning about the child."

ACT also trained staff members at McCoy in Kansas City, and teachers let parents do the talking during the home visits, said Nemeth, the principal. The teachers also bring school calendars and supply lists. "Some go in pairs, or with interpreters, because the district has a lot of Spanish-speaking families," she added.

Listening and learning

The Sacramento home visits usually last about an hour, Brown said. Teachers ask parents a series of questions, listen, complete forms they bring along, and encourage the children to show them where they study. The teachers also explain to parents what the children are learning, and offer information about school and community services.

"The first visit was more informal; we asked about parents' dreams and goals for their children," said Sao Vue, the head teacher at Susan B. Anthony Elementary School in Sacramento. During the second visit, the teacher cited an area -- such as reading -- in which the parents might help a child, offered suggestions for working on those skills at home, and possibly provided materials, Vue said. This year, however, funding was not available for teachers at his school to do home visits, he said

Teachers in other districts described similar routines. Ann McMahon, who teaches a second and third grade combined class at Arleta Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, continues to visit all 30 of her students' homes even though district funding for the program has ended.

McMahon said she begins the visits two weeks before school starts, and spends an hour at each home. "Some people prefer to come to the school," McMahon told Education World. "I tell them the visits are to get to know them and the children."

She also uses a form, and asks children about their interests and talents, and parents about their hopes and dreams for their child. Each child, the parents, and McMahon also set a goal for the year -- "I learned to make the goal very specific" -- and she takes a picture of the family, which she displays on her classroom bulletin board.

"When the children get to school on the first day, they see their families' pictures on the wall with their goal listed underneath," she said. "I also have the student's individual pictures." In November, she reviews with the family the student's progress toward meeting his or her goal.

Benefits beyond expectations

Administrators in most of the districts said they began home visits primarily to improve communication with parents. After the teacher-parent connections were made, teachers and administrators began to see benefits across the academic and behavioral spectrum.

"The rewards are many," Nemeth said. "Student achievement has gone up, which has been part of overall school reform."

"This changed the whole tone; the visits made parents feel like the teachers really cared about their child," said Hernandez of Sacramento ACT. "I saw some wonderful things happening with parents, as they saw how powerful they can be when they get involved."

Carol Sharp, director of parent services for the Sacramento schools, and former principal of Susan B. Anthony Elementary School, said she noticed changes in her school immediately after the first visits. Home visits were part of an overall school restructuring effort, which included changes to curriculum and instructional practices. "Our state scores jumped dramatically; we saw state scores rise 200 points after five years. Attendance also improved and vandalism was reduced."

Student suspensions also dropped markedly. The school suspended 140 students in 1997, the year before it started home visits, and the next year, only 60 students were suspended. "I think it was because of the tremendous communication between teachers and families," Sharp said.

Vue also saw student attitudes change. "We noticed that after [the home visits ], the students' behavior improved," he told Education World. "They were more cooperative, because their parents and teachers were on the same page. We could call and ask parents for help in a specific area. We encouraged parents to stop by and to call the school."

Kansas City schools experienced improvements in parent and student participation. "The schools that put the most into it got the most out of it," said Warren Adams-Leavitt, executive director of the Kansas City Church Community Organization in Kansas City, Missouri, the organization that sponsored teacher training for home visits in 2000-01 and 2001-02. "One school saw a 95 percent participation rate at parent conferences after the first visit. Teachers could talk about the children much more deeply, because they understood the child's family and background. They got a clearer idea of the students' interests."

Deeper understanding of students also can lead to more meaningful lessons. "When I know a child's interests, it can help me plan units," Portland's McMahon said. "When I learn about them as individuals, they are less anxious the first day."

Why aren't they done more? 

Although many educators now cite the pluses of home visits, in Sacramento, Kansas City, and Columbus, the programs were launched by community organizations eager to improve their schools by building community support. In some cases, after the programs proved successful, funding was no longer available to continue them, or it was uncertain.

The Kansas City Church Community Organization secured two years of grants for home visits, with the hope that the school system then would fund the program, but that has not happened, according to Adams-Leavitt. "We thought it just made sense. The thought was to introduce it to the schools and support them as they tried it. My hope was that the district would pick it up. At some point, it needs to be part of a broader school reform strategy. We got it introduced and I really think it got off to a great start.

"We need the district and administrators to pay attention," he said.

McCoy Elementary was able to continue home visits without funding; by having teachers use their August staff development days to do them, avoiding the additional cost, principal Nemeth said.

According to Nemeth, "We continued them because it was the right thing to do. At first, teachers were worried that they would not have time to finish preparing their classrooms, but the best preparation for their classroom is community building. We don't worry what the bulletin boards look like -- building community is much more important."

Funding for home visits in Sacramento and the rest of California dries up on June 30 -- the state eliminated the program from the budget, despite the pervasive effect home visits have on a school and community. "The investment is so meager in return for the gains made," Brown told Education World.

Nemeth said she is convinced that home visits are a fundamental part of any school reform effort. "It's something schools could and should do if they are serious about improvement, increasing attendance, and increasing parent conference attendance," she said. "It's not working harder, it's working smarter."

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