District officials turn to home visits to boost schools


Nehemiah Watkins, 4, sneaks a peak at the parent-teacher home visit between his parents, Jerome Watkins and Nicole Jones-Watkins, left, as they discuss the upcoming school year expectations for their son, Xavier Ferrell, 9, middle, with Stanton Elementary teachers Samantha Antunez, middle right, and Melissa Bryant, right, on Thursday in Washington. (Amanda Voisard/The Washington Post)
September 10, 2013

After years of focusing their attention on the quality of teaching inside city classrooms, District public schools officials are turning to a new front in their efforts to improve the schools: family living rooms.

Hundreds of D.C. teachers will spend weekends and evenings this fall visiting students and their parents at home, hoping to lift academic achievement by creating stronger partnerships between families and the schools. The push to visit students on their own turf is a shift for the District’s school system, which often has been accused of alienating the families it serves. Now, the aim is to help teachers and parents become allies instead of adversaries in the day-to-day work of educating the city’s children.

Officials say teachers in 43 of the city’s traditional schools already have visited more than 1,400 families this year, setting up appointments with parents and then traveling to homes in pairs. Those visits, about 30 minutes each, are get-to-know-you sessions that serve as an anchor for ongoing communication by phone, e-mail, text and in person throughout the school year. Fifteen of the schools have comprehensive programs that aim to reach at least half of their student body through voluntary home visits, meaning thousands of families could get such visits this year.

“Like many other school districts, we’ve struggled with the best ways to engage families,” Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said. But with the help of the local Flamboyan Foundation, which trains and pays teachers to make home visits, “I think we’ve happened upon a model that actually is really effective.”

Henderson recognizes that strengthening schools isn’t just about changing what happens inside classrooms but also about changing how teachers relate to their communities.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson discusses the significantly higher standardized test scores achieved by DCPS students, and dismisses the notion that it’s because more middle class students are starting to attend public schools. (The Washington Post)

Although it’s a new initiative for the District’s school system, the home-visit approach has been used for years in some local charters and in schools elsewhere. It offers no guarantee of improvement, but research has shown that when families are more involved in schools, students do better. Still, the District faces unanswered questions about how to administer home visits in a way that is affordable for the city and sustainable for teachers who already have heavy workloads.

But it is the recent success with home visits at Stanton Elementary, in Southeast Washington, that offers one of the main reasons such visits are taking hold in the District.

Scholar Academies, a Philadelphia-based charter operator, took over Stanton in 2010, aiming to turn it around. At the end of that first year, fewer than 10 percent of students were proficient in math and reading, and discipline was a chronic problem.

Two years later, behavior has improved and proficiency has doubled in reading and quadrupled in math. Stanton staff members say home visits are not the only reason for the improvement, but they are an important element.

The visits have helped parents see teachers not just as disciplinarians who call with bad news but as advocates for their children, staff members said. And they’ve helped teachers understand where students are coming from and that parents want to help their children succeed, even if they don’t always know how.

“It really made me understand that all parents care,” fourth-grade teacher Melissa Bryant said.

Several Stanton parents said they were wary the first time teachers asked if they could stop by for a conversation. Strangers poking around the house sounded a lot like a social-services inspection.

But it turned out to be something else: An easygoing conversation about their dreams for their children’s future and their desires for the school year.

For Natina Kiah, a Stanton mother, that first home visit was an invitation to build a new relationship with a school that had never seemed particularly welcoming.

Before, she said, she thought teachers judged her — and her tattoos and her piercings — when she walked through the schoolhouse doors, and she responded accordingly. “I was the parent you’d hate to see coming,” Kiah said.

Now she is in touch with teachers regularly. And she goes to meetings at school where teachers show her how to help her children with homework, right down to sharing some long-forgotten tricks for solving math problems. The meetings are a second strategy that Flamboyan helps schools use to engage parents.

“It gave me a sense of pride, because I could do it. I had the knowledge to help,” said Kiah, who works as a contractor for Flamboyan, training teachers for home visits.

Every family wants a relationship with their teacher, and every single family wants to know what they can do to help their child succeed,” said Kristin Ehrgood, a former Teach for America corps member and president of Flamboyan, a private family foundation that focuses on education issues and philanthropy in public schools in the District and Puerto Rico. “It transcends race and economics and everything.”

The foundation piloted its strategies two years ago with Stanton and two other schools. By 2012-13, Flamboyan was working with 13 District public schools, 12 of which recorded gains in reading or math scores.

Now the foundation is partnering with 15 District schools, all of which applied for the program. The foundation has trained an additional 60 teachers at 28 District schools who will meet with families they select. Flamboyan also is working with nine D.C. charters.

Home visits are no magic elixir for a struggling school. Southeast’s Garfield Elementary suspended home visits after teachers were trained last year. It was too much work when coupled with other initiatives, according to school system officials. Garfield’s principal did not respond to a request for comment.

Many schools, including in Arlington County and in national charter networks such as KIPP, have been conducting home visits for years. Individual teachers and schools in the District also explored home visits before Flamboyan.

“I remember getting a home visit when I was young. It’s not necessarily a new, sexy strategy,” said Janeece Docal, principal of Powell Elementary in Petworth, where early childhood education teachers began visiting families five years ago and have seen the proportion of chronically truant students drop from 12 percent to zero. “It’s one of those traditional ones that makes a difference.”

With Flamboyan’s financial support and training, Powell has been able to ramp up home visits across the grades, aiming to visit all 425 students this fall.

Schools partner with Flamboyan for three years. The foundation provides training, stipends for teachers who coordinate family engagement efforts and funding for academic materials families can use at home. It also pays teachers $34 per hour for home visits. Each school pays a fee of $2,000 to $5,000 per year to help defray costs.

Docal wondered how and whether the District’s schools could sustain such a program without outside funding. School system officials said they are working to answer that question as they aim to expand the model citywide in the next five years.

It’s a new commitment for a school system whose leaders, in the past, sometimes discouraged teachers from visiting families.

“Your work was 8 to 3:30, and there was very much a sentiment that the work is hard enough as it is, so there shouldn’t be an expectation that you have to do more outside of that,” said Jason Kamras, chief of human capital for the city’s public schools, who began teaching nearly two decades ago at Sousa Middle School.

Kamras visited parents and grandparents anyway. He found that it gave him a way to connect with students who were otherwise unreachable or difficult. But it was no insignificant choice; it took time. “It’s our job as a school system to figure out how do we support teachers and schools to be able to make these connections,” Kamras said. “It’s very clear that this is a priority.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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