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Open House


Open House

Home visits, a once rare but growing practice, can lead to effective partnerships between schools and parents.

By Caralee Adams

As Jason Livernois walks into the home of one of his students for a visit before the start of the school year, almost invariably, the child’s face lights up. 

“Their teacher is in their house, and that’s a super exciting thing for a 4-, 5-, or 6-year-old,” says Livernois, who teaches kindergarten and PreK at Ketcham Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

Parents, on the other hand, don’t always know what to expect, but Livernois quickly assures them he is not there to inspect or lecture. It’s all about listening—to their hopes and dreams for their child, and to information on the child’s likes and dislikes, quirks and challenges.

“I go in with an open mind, because in a home visit I know I’m going to learn so much valuable information that I will be able to use in the classroom later,” says Livernois. After the visit, parents no longer see him as an adversary but as a partner in their child’s education, he adds.

Some schools are embracing home visits as an effective way to engage parents. Research shows there are real benefits, and the practice is gaining traction, especially as teachers try to bridge connections with families who are from different cultural backgrounds than they are.

Yet, home visits are still not common practice in most schools. Administrators may be hesitant to ask teachers to take on additional duties. And it does take time—each one lasts about 30 to 40 minutes. But advocates say the payoffs are worth it.

“[Home visits] are not the be-all and end-all of family engagement, but it’s an amazingly cost-effective, proven foundational strategy,” says Carrie Rose, executive director of the Sacramento-based Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project. This project started with eight pilot schools in 1998 and now has programs in 432 schools in 17 states. (The majority are elementary and urban, but that is changing rapidly.) “It’s something that almost everyone can do if they want to,” adds Rose. “It’s affordable for public schools, and it gets them great results really fast.”

Parent engagement is a real issue. A recent Gallup poll found that just 20 percent of public school parents are fully engaged in their child’s school, while 57 percent are indifferent and 23 percent are actively disengaged. Home visits are all about increasing engagement, and, sometimes, busting assumptions on both sides. Carol Mills, a counselor at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, first visits students in their homes as incoming freshmen, then as seniors for college planning, and in between as needed. “Both [the student] and the parent will confide things that do not come up when you are talking to the kid at school,” says Mills, who has been doing visits since her school adopted the practice and trained the staff about 10 years ago. “The very best thing is that there are no interruptions—no one is calling me or banging on my office door. You are focused totally on that kid and his parent.”

Since the majority of families whose children attend Luther Burbank speak a language other than English (mainly Spanish and Hmong), Mills often takes a translator along. She has found that some parents are reluctant to come to the school for a meeting, but most are very welcoming when she offers to come to them. “You end up getting a lot of hugs,” says Mills. “They say a lot of thank-yous in their language and in English.”

Building an Alliance

Using home visits in a strategic way first took hold in the United States in the 1960s with families of young children through the federal Head Start program. Other schools started making home visits for recruitment or to address discipline or attendance issues. But rather than having a negative event be the trigger for a home visit, the Home Visit Project approach offers educational home visits to all families upfront to establish rapport and communication, says Rose.

“Our first visit is always about relationship building. We don’t any take paper or pens, or bring academic expectations,” says Rose. “We walk into that visit with the main goal of finding out what we don’t already know [about] the strength of the family to help that child be successful.”

In this model, visits are voluntary—typically two each year for elementary schools. Educators go in pairs and are trained and compensated for their visits. Teachers acknowledge that parents are the experts on their own children, and the hope is to share expectations and set up an ongoing dialogue.

Often, children pick up on the new alliance. “When the child hears we are working together, [he or she] is less likely to have certain behaviors,” says Livernois. “We are switching the mind-set from ‘I’m going to call your parents because you did something wrong’ to ‘I’m going to call your parents because I want to celebrate what you have done.’”

For 20 years, teachers and principals at KIPP Charter Schools have done home visits and asked families to sign a pledge of commitment to the program. “It pushes all of us into mutual accountability,” says Kyle Shaffer, principal of KIPP Excelencia Community Prep, a K–8 charter school in Redwood City, California. 

More than the pledge, the visit is intended to build a bridge between home and school. Because the teacher and the school has initially reached out to parents, Shaffer says families are more likely to be responsive when there are problems and may reach out to teachers with concerns. The practice also helps educators overcome stereotypes about families from different backgrounds, he adds. “You consistently hear the passion from parents. There is a pervasive thought out there among middle- and upper-class people that low-income families don’t care or don’t want certain things. Every home visit, I hear how much parents want their children to succeed.”

Bridging the Divide

Because so many teachers do not live in the neighborhoods where they work, the challenge, and reward, of a home visit is to learn about the family and the child’s environment, says Gisela Ernst-Slavit, a professor of education at the College of Education at Washington State University in Vancouver, Washington, who focuses her work on English language learners.

“In any teacher education program, one of the first lessons is to know your students,” says Ernst-Slavit. “This takes it one step further. When you meet their family, you meet who they are, their strengths and their challenges.”

Home visits on the parents’ turf sets the groundwork for families to trust teachers and makes it easier to have tough conversations when parents come in later for conferences. “If a teacher says your child is having issues, it can be a cut to your heart. So [as a teacher], you’ll want to build those relationships up first,” says Andrea Prejean, director of Teacher Quality for the National Education Association.

These visits have taught Sara Brown not to assume anything about her students. “There have been some homes where I had prejudgments and they were as wrong as wrong could be,” says Brown, who teaches kindergarten at Evergreen School District in Vancouver, Washington. She started making home visits on her own after researching the practice for her master’s thesis.

Once, when Brown, who takes a translator along with her when needed, visited a girl who was always well dressed and prepared with supplies, she discovered the child’s home had no heat. Another time, she visited a family that was living in a hotel. “Those are the things you aren’t going to know,” says Brown, who found that seeing her students’ circumstances made her more empathetic when they were tired or struggling in class.

The NEA has been supportive of the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project for many years. In its Priority Schools Campaign, which supports schools that are struggling in 40 sites in 17 states, some use this model.

Prejean acknowledges there are barriers. A lack of time and money, and miscon-ceptions on both sides, can keep more visits from happening. “It’s not really been the culture of schools to do these visits,” she says. “Some teachers have asked us: ‘Is it really okay to go into somebody’s house? Are we sort of barging in? Is that our role to do that?’”

And there’s the question of compensation. Teachers in some states are paid for home visits. (In D.C., it’s $35 per hour; in Montana, the rate is $20 per visit.) Prejean says the NEA understands the money issue and other barriers and believes visiting students’ families should be voluntary. The key is to properly prepare your teachers for these visits.

Preparation and ROI

Home-visit advocates maintain it is crucial to train teachers so that they are prepared when going into homes and are sensitive to what they may encounter. The Flamboyan Foundation is one group that partners with schools to provide professional development. They walk teachers though a variety of scenarios that address concerns about safety, fear of dogs, or what to do when offered refreshments.

There are also a number of ways administrators themselves can prepare their teachers, including bringing in others who have done it and arranging for interpreters (see sidebar).

“Teachers who have done home visits will tell you the time they invest on the front end, they save throughout the school year,” says Kristin Ehrgood, president and board chair of the Flamboyan Foundation, a private organization that focuses on public education. “They feel it has transformed the relationship they have with families and has helped their classrooms function more effectively.”

A 2015 Johns Hopkins University study of 12 Washington, D.C., public schools that participated in the Flamboyan Foundation’s Family Engagement Partnership found that students whose families received a home visit had 24 percent fewer absences and were more likely to read at or above grade level compared with similar students who did not receive a home visit.

Teachers find home visits also lead to insight about issues such as why kids might respond in certain, sometimes inappropriate, ways or need extra support.

Katrina Branch was nervous when her nieces’ teachers from Stanton Elementary School in Washington, D.C., called to arrange a home visit about five years ago. Branch had just adopted her two nieces and two nephews following the death of her sister and she didn’t feel as though she had everything together. “I didn’t want the teachers to come and find something out of place,” says Branch, who has two older children of her own. “I thought that they were going to judge me.”

But on the visit—and several since—teachers shared a little bit about themselves and made Branch feel comfortable opening up. “At first, I didn’t feel I was on the same level as the teacher,” says Branch, who was moved by one teacher who asked about her goals for her niece. “No one had ever asked me that question.”

Branch eventually developed close ties with many teachers at the school, and says she feels welcome there and that her -nieces and nephews have excelled. She was inspired to get involved, and so she joined the Parent Teacher Organization; eventually, she became PTO president and now works part-time on-site with an after-school program.

In the end, it’s noticing the little things when conducting a home visit that can make a big difference, says D.C. teacher Jason Livernois. When one of his students was having a hard time transitioning to school, he noticed on a visit that the child had a car-shaped bed and lots of toy cars. Livernois instantly knew what to do: “I let him know I would have cars for him to play with when he came to school,” he says. “That was able to get him in the door without crying.” 

Home Visit How-To

Nine steps to rolling out and maintaining a home-visit program in your school or district

Find a champion, usually a principal or superintendent, who will provide vision and staff support for home visits.

Start small and provide training for teachers who are willing to try home visits. Ask them to share their experi­ences as you grow the program.

Make sure training provides opportunities to acknowledge and address cultural differences, fears, and assumptions that may exist primarily between school staff and families but can also include community partners.

If there’s a language ­barrier, arrange for an interpreter to accompany the teacher.

Identify funds to compensate teachers for time spent on visits outside of regular working hours.

Partner with the union, the community, and the district to clear any administrative burdens.

Have teachers avoid a formal agenda at home visits. Emphasize asking questions and listening. And absolutely no note taking!

Don’t bring stacks of ­printed material—sharing information happens in subsequent parent meetings.

After visits, gather staff for reflection about what they learned from families.
Ask: What did you assume was true before the visits? What did you discover? How will you apply what you have learned to more effectively engage your student?

Source: Carrie Rose, Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project

illustration: Patrick George; photo: Conde/Shutterstock



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