“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.”