This article written for Colorín Colorado provides practical tips for home visits with English language learners (ELLs), including steps to take before, during, and after the visit.
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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In the District, officials are looking at the possibility of home visits for elementary school students. The nonprofit Concentric Educational Solutions has been knocking on the doors of persistent truants for the past year. The group’s executive director and co-founder, David L. Heiber, said the visits would be even more effective if they occurred before students got into trouble. “Home visits by themselves do not correlate into academic achievement,” he said. “However, if done with academic goals and targets as the objectives, they do work.”
That thought is dismissed in many schools. Administrators such as Kamras’s principal see danger in some neighborhoods, and don’t think their staffs have the time or the energy for such after-school and weekend enterprises. “Teachers are overworked already,” Heiber said he has been told. He said administrators say that “our social workers only see our special needs students” or that “we are short staffed as it is.”
“We respond affirmatively,” Heiber said. “All these things are true, if we continue to do the same things, the same way, looking through the same lens.” Heiber argues that in a school with 1,000 students, if there are 70 willing staff members, each will have to visit only 15 homes. He said the visits often produce better attendance and more attention in class, saving those teachers much wasted time.
Trying to reach parents on the phone or by e-mail is often fruitless. Asking students why they are missing class can produce short, unhelpful answers. Heiber recalled visiting the home of a 10th-grader on a Saturday in Southeast Washington and discovering the problem after talking a few minutes with the student’s older sister.
Their mother had suffered a heart attack and a stroke. The sister, a nursing school student, said she and her sister “take turns staying home with her each week so she’s never here alone. We’re both missing a lot of school, but until she gets a little better, she can’t stay by herself.” When the educators learned that, they could work on alternatives.
Home visits have powerful backers. An article on a National Education Association Web site said, “Most teachers report their home visits have a lasting effect on the child, the parent and parent-teacher communication.”
In some places it is traditional for teachers to visit kindergartners’ homes before their first day at a new school. Charter organizations such as KIPP visit the parents of any new student. Head Start teachers are required to make home visits.
Some teachers I know began visiting homes on their own out of desperation. They needed some way to connect with hard-to-reach children. They were middle class people who thought it rude to show up at a home unannounced and anticipated a hostile reaction. Instead, they learned that in the home country cultures of the parents they visited, it was an honor for a teacher to drop by.
Home visits cannot be expanded quickly. They cost money and time. Many educators still need convincing. But as Chicago schools chief Brizard said of parents’ homes: “Our students go there every day. Why can’t we?”
Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.View Archive
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