Teachers increasingly use home visits to connect with students’ families

October 9, 2011

The two high school teachers knocked at Apartment 512 of a Crystal City high-rise and waited to see the inside of Alvaro Nunez Alvarez’s life.

Up to that point, the teachers knew this about 14-year-old Alvaro: He was quiet. He had recently arrived from somewhere in Latin America. He was smart and ambitious.

They were there to fill in the blanks — to conduct a kind of parent-teacher conference on the family’s turf. There’s no better way, many educators say, to turn distant or unresponsive parents into allies and communicators actively involved in the education of their children.

But that means venturing far beyond the classroom, penetrating the private spaces that students disappear to when the afternoon school bell rings.

When the door to Apt. 512 opened, there were Alvaro and his sister, standing in their matching Wakefield High School T-shirts, blushing. There were his parents, well-dressed, deferential, letting out a stream of “thank you so much” and “it’s our pleasure to host you” in Spanish.

Debbie Polhemus and Yun-Chi Maggie Hsu, both Wakefield teachers, were reaching out to the Nunez Alvarez family in a manner once considered out of bounds but now increasingly common in the Washington area and across the country: sitting in a student’s living room, munching on homemade pupusas, talking about academic expectations far from school halls.

Arlington County teachers were among the small group to pioneer the idea in Northern Virginia several years ago. This year, instructors in the District have followed suit.

It’s an effort to connect with even the most withdrawn families, who might have immigration difficulties or perhaps feel spurned by the public school system. Such parents are often uncomfortable at a school conference or open house, but teachers are desperate to collaborate with them.

“This makes us better teachers,” Hsu said. “These visits are the most direct way to get the parents’ help. We’re able to gain their trust. It makes the connection instant and so much deeper.”

The program began formally in Sacramento in the late 1990s, and it has expanded to schools across the country, particularly in low-income, urban and heavily immigrant communities, such as parts of New York City and Chicago. Veterans of the program train new participants in the protocol of home visits, an evolving blend of propriety and pedagogy.

When Polhemus and Hsu walked through the Nunez Alvarezes’ door, they saw an immaculate apartment decorated with Salvadoran antiques and newly purchased Halloween decorations. Sometimes, the glimpse into a student’s life is more cluttered, more complicated: families skirting the poverty line, or teenagers working part-time jobs late into the night.

“We want to learn a little about you,” Polhemus told the parents in Spanish. The teachers had called ahead so that they wouldn’t catch the family off-guard. Some teachers and administrators, although not many, stop by without notice, an effort to get a glimpse into a typical day in a family’s life.

Then the conversation began — not with a commentary on Alvaro’s performance, but with questions about Mom and Dad’s education in El Salvador, about the transition from school in one country to another.

“What are your hopes for the children?” Polhemus asked.

“I want them to give all they can to their studies,” said Sara, Alvaro’s mother. “I want them to shine at school, and I want school to be a light for them.”

Alvaro looked on quietly, hands folded in his lap.

Before school started, his mother warned him that there might be drug dealers, gang violence and discrimination against Latinos on campus — rumors about American schools that she’d heard from Salvadoran friends. She admonished Alvaro to keep his head down, to stay out of trouble.

Those misperceptions were already starting to turn when Polhemus and Hsu knocked on the family’s door. But having the two teachers in the living room, listening to them talk about the Wakefield community, was the reassurance that she needed, eradicating myths that once made the mother sick with worry.

“This would never happen in El Salvador,” she said. “The teachers would never go this far out of their way.”

When it was his turn to talk, Alvaro said that someday he wants to attend an American university. Someday, he wants to be a doctor. First, he would have to attend the Wakefield homecoming dance the next day. He smiled. He looked a little overwhelmed.

In the District, the Flamboyan Foundation, which focuses on education, has trained teachers from 47 schools to conduct home visits. That program took shape after parents articulated their mistrust of local schools and teachers in a series of focus groups.

“For years, schools have been like fortresses,” said Kristen Ehrgood, the foundation’s president. “These visits level the playing field between teachers and parents.”

In the D.C. and Virginia schools where teachers have begun visiting parents at home, attendance at back-to-school nights has spiked, administrators say. Parents once reluctant to set foot on campuses have emerged, heeding the idea that a child’s education is a partnership between teachers and parents.

Sometimes principals make house calls, too. Before the school year started at the Jefferson-Houston School in Alexandria, administrators went door to door, introducing themselves to parents and outlining their academic vision.

The target populations differ for each school and community, but the program’s architects in most school systems attempt to visit a socioeconomic cross section of students and parents. At Wakefield, teachers are focusing on incoming ninth-graders and have paid house calls to 140 out of 320 freshmen.

The practice is common in charter school networks such as KIPP and UNO, in which teachers visit the parents of every new student. Charters tend to have more leeway to make such visits mandatory. But many regular public schools also support the practice, offering teachers such as Hsu and Polhemus incentive payments of $25 to $40 a visit. At Wakefield, about 40 teachers are making visits; the majority visit students they have in class.

In many schools, the visits serve mainly as introductions — and although they are not likely to be repeated, the initial connection pays off down the road. In other cases, the first, formal visits help teachers and parents form a bond, leading to more meetings around kitchen tables and in living rooms.

“They know us now. We’ve established a relationship,” Hsu said after leaving the Nunez Alvarezes’ apartment. “If we call them down the road with a question or a problem, they will remember this visit.”

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Nairobi since 2014. He served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
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