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Opening Dialogue With a Knock on the Door

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2005; Page A07

The first time Dominion High School Principal W. John Brewer showed up, unannounced, on his students' doorsteps about two years ago, the initial reactions were not particularly warm. He was 33 years old, and at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, he looked intimidating enough to make even the most welcoming family uncomfortable.

"I am not interested in buying anything, buddy," was a frequent response. But once Brewer, wearing khaki slacks and a Dominion High polo shirt, introduced himself, the mood quickly changed. Parents and students were astonished and pleased that a busy educator would pay them a visit.

Dominion High Principal W. John Brewer, left, greets sophomore Jordan Taylor, 15, and his father, Darcy, at their home in Sterling. (Photos Jessica Tefft For The Washington Post)

"A lot of them said, 'No principal has ever done this before,' " Brewer recalled.

Home visits -- a rare practice that is seeing a resurgence among American educators -- were crucial to Brewer's success in opening Dominion in Loudoun County in 2003, he said. Like a few other innovative teachers and administrators, Brewer uses the visits not only to introduce himself but also to win parents' assistance in helping children who may be faltering.

"It cuts down on miscommunication," he said. "I can stand on the porch with the student and dad, and we all get on the same page in about five minutes."

More than a century ago, when many American schools were small and rural, schoolteachers often were invited for dinner, and home visits were as common as blackboards and spelling bees. But as schools got bigger and neighborhoods became less friendly, the practice died out.

School administrators say they worry about the safety of teachers venturing into unfamiliar areas and the privacy of families, but several schools have adopted home visits after learning from practice that classrooms become more orderly and children learn more when the teacher or principal has a personal connection with parents. The rising population of immigrant families has particularly welcomed home visits as a sign of respect and a chance to ask questions in a comfortable, private place.

"Teachers are often reluctant to make home visits, but once they do, they are sold on the power of doing such," said Shari Ostrow Scher, an early childhood specialist and family involvement coordinator for Frederick County schools. "They allow the teacher to see the child in a relaxed setting, where the child has much to share. It is a great way to learn about the child's interests, hobbies and strengths. It allows families to see the teacher on their turf and often leads to sharing and trust between all adults."

Ximena Suarez de Cornejo, a teacher at Barcroft Elementary School in Arlington County, said she visits the families of students who are learning English and those of students who are falling behind. Once contact is made, she said, the students' "goals and academics definitely go up."

Several schools in the Washington area and across the country encourage home visits to low-income preschool students and to families whose first language is not English. But some have gone so far as to try to reach every student's home.

The Knowledge Is Power Program, a high-performing network of 38 public charter and contract schools in cities and rural neighborhoods in 15 states and the District, asks that teachers visit the home of every new student. "It's rare when the families don't want us to come by, but in that rare situation, we try to accommodate that family by conducting the home visit at the school," said Susan Schaeffler, principal of the KIPP DC:KEY Academy in Southeast Washington.

The program's home visits grew out of a desperate attempt by the network's two founders, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, to bring order to their chaotic classrooms when they were novice teachers in Houston in the early 1990s. They started dropping by their students' homes after school in hopes the parents might help them impose discipline. They found the practice had many other benefits.

"Instead of complaining in the teachers' lounge about unresponsive parents, teachers have the ability to bridge any communications gaps that exist," Feinberg said.

Levin said "parents repeatedly talk about the home visits when they talk about how they knew KIPP was a unique and special place."

Home visits appear to work as well in affluent suburban Chicago as they do in Anacostia. Jon White, an assistant principal at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., said his huge and wealthy school, with 3,000 students in 10th, 11th and 12th grades, has had regular home visits since 1928. Each incoming sophomore is assigned to a group of 25 other new students, and the teacher who advises that group visits the home of each member, usually for an hour or two, at the beginning of the year.

"It establishes a personal relationship between an adult in the school and the home, and it is our school's primary means of communication," White said.

In many schools, teachers call ahead before they visit, although some schools have special visiting days that don't require such notification. Hollin Meadows Elementary School in Fairfax County has a "Welcome Walk" the Thursday evening before the first day of school in September when pairs of teachers visit each new student. They spend five minutes at each home, dropping off information and sometimes taking pictures of the students with their families.

"Parents, students and teachers have come to look forward to this annual event," said Fairfax schools spokesman Paul Regnier.

Dominion High School's Brewer said just showing up has advantages. His usual routine is to park his sport-utility vehicle, painted in Dominion High colors, silver and black, at the end of a block and knock on each student's door, usually between 7 and 9 p.m. weekdays, or sometimes Sunday afternoons.

Trying to arrange a home visit by telephone is clumsy and limited, he said. "A lot of people in this day and age don't answer their phone, and if I leave a message, I am only talking to one person."

When he was an assistant principal at Broad Run High School in Loudoun County, he said, he knew everybody. He wanted to have the same connection to students at his new school, so he started his visits a year before it opened.

"Our geography, our demographics, our feeling of family, my personal values, all make this a good fit for our school and our community, our principal and staff," Brewer said. "But I don't know if it would fit for others."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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