Teachers make house calls to improve performance

Teachers make house calls to improve performance

(Calif.) Parent-teacher interaction at most schools centers around annual conferences where mom or dad come to the classroom and sit for an hour listening to an educator talk about how their child is performing.

More and more, however, districts across the nation are seeing great gains in student achievement by employing a different model of family engagement – teacher home visits.

“In my honest opinion, I feel like it’s the key ingredient in terms of connecting authentically with families,” said Danny Rolleri, principal at Sacramento City Unified’s Oak Ridge Elementary School, a participant in a nationwide program aimed at bringing teachers into student homes to develop a bond and open lines of communication with parents.

“It sends a message that we’re a team; we’re all in this together, and that parents are equally valued as educators in the learning process for their child,” Rolleri said.

Oak Ridge is one of 37 Sacramento City schools that participate in the program, sponsored by the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project, a largely privately-funded nonprofit based in Sacramento.

But the reach of the program goes far beyond the Central Valley, having trained 4,622 teachers in 305 schools across 15 states just in the last year.

The 20,914 resulting home visits have led to many positive results, according to the project’s Sacramento-area director Lisa Levasseur, including not only better communication, trust and support between families and teachers but also increases in student attendance rates and test scores, and decreases in suspension and expulsion rates.

To participate in the home visit project, a school must be eligible under the federal Title I grant – provided to support large populations of disadvantaged students – and at least half of its teaching staff must indicate at least an interest in learning more about the program for the school to be selected, Levasseur said. Teachers receive a stipend for each visit, which must be made outside of regular contract hours.

What makes the program work, according to Rolleri, is that the home visits don’t revolve around how the child is doing academically. It’s a friendly visit from the child’s teacher who is there to listen and to learn about the family and what’s important to the parents.

“It isn’t about student performance in the classroom; it isn’t about misbehavior at school – it’s about what hopes and dreams parents have for their kid; it’s about what they do as a family together; it’s a glimpse into the authentic real world that our kids have when they’re not at school, and it’s trying to come from a place that’s connecting and encouraging,” he said.

Levasseur, who trains teachers on conducting the home visits, added, “We encourage teachers to do more listening than talking. You’re not going out to fix them, you’re going out to listen and learn. It’s about building relationships.”

Teachers are also encouraged to choose a cross-section of their students for the visits so that there isn’t a negative connotation attached. If a teacher chooses to visit the homes of two struggling students, he or she should also plan visits with two families of students who are doing well in class.

At Oak Ridge, parents have responded enthusiastically to the school’s effort to get to know them on a different level and to include them as partners in their children’s educations, Rolleri said.

Many more parents attend school events and are actively engaged in their child’s academic journey,” Communication also becomes easier, whether the discussion is about a positive experience or a negative behavior.

“When I have to pick up the phone and tell them ‘I’m sorry to have to call you but this is what happened today’ they’re supportive of me and willing to talk with me because of that previous work we’ve done with the home visit project and that genuine connection that we’ve made,” said the principal.

Oak Ridge last year also piloted in two grades an extension of the home visit project known as Academic Parent Teacher Teams, which involves teachers hosting school-based meetings for parents and guardians to familiarize them with the curriculum and provide fun, hands-on learning activities they can do at home with their child.

That program has become so successful, said Rolleri, that he has had parents step up to lead trainings for other parents who either couldn’t make the initial meeting or who maybe didn’t feel comfortable in the teacher-led session. The pilot program is also being extended next year to include every K-6 classroom.

“Families love it, and actually I feel like this has been the most meaningful thing we’ve done since I’ve been here,” he said.

At the high school level, the Home Visit Project is helping to make a difference in the number of students actually applying to go to college, Levasseur said.

Through a pilot program at Luther Burbank High School, teachers attempt to visit as many incoming freshmen as possible, and another large push is aimed at juniors – all to discuss the student’s future plans and to set them on the right path if college is what they want.

“The high schools are really unique in terms of what we’ve seen in the turnaround of families allowing their kids to apply for college,” Levasseur said. “Those numbers have increased dramatically.”

For more information about the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project, visit http://www.pthvp.org/