In this photo from August 2013, Stanton Elementary teacher Samantha Antunez chats with her student Xavier Ferrell, 9, as his father Jerome Watkins excuses himself to take care of his young son, Nehemiah Watkins, 4, during a teacher home-visit in Washington, D.C. The school system has been experimenting with teachers visiting students’ homes. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)
Dave Levin thought he was going to be fired from his Houston school the day he picked up a huge, unruly sixth-grader and dropped him in his seat. He had touched a kid. That was a big no-no. He felt so bad that he went to the boy’s small wood-frame home after school — another thing he had been told never to do — and apologized to the boy’s mother.
To his surprise, the woman seemed pleased by his visit.
“Listen,” she said, “you’re the first teacher that ever came to the house. Do whatever you have to do to my son. He doesn’t listen to me. Do whatever you have to do.”
Meeting the mother caused the boy to behave a bit better. Levin and his friend Mike Feinberg, another teacher, began to do home visits regularly, making them part of the KIPP charter school network they founded.
Two decades later, several other charters and even some regular public schools have begun to reject the traditional view that parent contacts should be confined to the phone or meetings at the school. The District’s new Family Engagement Partnership has just led to a $20,000 award for history and reading support teacher Kristen Whitaker, the catalyst behind more than 200 home visits by Columbia Heights Education Campus faculty this school year.
Whitaker, who plans to use the money to fund a summer camp program, has been relentless. She encountered parents reluctant to participate, “but I don’t take no for an answer,” she said. She said she “offered to meet them at the local Starbucks or Panera or anywhere in the community that fit their comfort level. I would treat both the parent and the student to the drink of their choice and have a relaxing get-to-know-you conversation. After I established trust and the parents knew I was not trying to judge them, they would then invite me to their homes for our follow-up meeting.”
Schools often say they are trying to involve parents, but that usually translates into stiff, arms-length gestures such as sending notes home or holding back-to-school nights.
Whitaker and the other D.C. home-visiting teachers are trained and paid with funds from the D.C. public schools and the Flamboyan Foundation. Using a model developed by educators in Sacramento, the teachers visit in pairs after school or on weekends. They don’t do surprise visits. They don’t make assumptions about kids or parents. They don’t take notes. They listen more than talk.
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