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It’s an effort to connect with even the most withdrawn families, who might have immigration difficulties or perhaps feel spurned by the public school system.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.