The new chief of the Chicago public schools, Jean-Claude Brizard, suggested recently that teachers visit the homes of their students. Many people reacted to that badly, as math teacher Jason Kamras’s principal did when Kamras dropped in on his students’ apartments near Sousa Middle School in Southeast Washington.
The Sousa principal feared for his young teacher’s safety in a high-crime area. Kamras, however, found the visits invaluable. He understood his students better. Parents were more supportive. Now a D.C. schools official, Kamras is one of many educators who think unannounced visits can be worth the risk.
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?”