Sarah Zick swerved through the crowds clogging 14th Street NW in Columbia Heights one recent muggy afternoon, trekking to one of her student’s homes.

The first-grade teacher is attempting to meet the families of each of her students at their homes or a place of their choosing — shifting the traditional parent-teacher power dynamic that plays out on school grounds.

On this Wednesday, three weeks into the school year, it was student No. 21. That left just two more children from Zick’s first-grade class at Tubman Elementary awaiting visits.

She spotted the 6-year-old girl near her public housing complex holding hands with her mother. The girl gave Zick a quick hug. The meeting began.

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What Zick learned: The girl loves math but is more tepid about reading. She loves dancing and princesses. A friend from school recently died of complications related to asthma, and the 6-year-old often thinks about death. Lockdowns at the school prompted by recent shootings in Columbia Heights exacerbated those anxieties.

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Zick’s plan after that meeting: She will send the girl home with books about dancing and princesses for mom to read with her at night. And when there is another lockdown or drill, Zick will pay extra attention to make sure the girl is okay.

“You really don’t know anything about them when they’re just put on your roster,” said Zick, who leads family engagement at her school and has conducted nearly 200 home visits in five years. “I’m not here to tell parents what’s best for their child. I’m here to provide them resources.”

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Over the past five years, the District has sought to reinvent the old-fashioned idea of home visits. It’s no longer about descending on the house of a struggling or truant student. Instead, it’s about nurturing relationships with parents so they feel connected to staff at the school.

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In 2011, the traditional public school system partnered with the Flamboyan Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on getting parents involved in their children’s education, to test a family visit program in three elementary schools. Flamboyan trained the teachers on how to conduct the visits, paying them $40 each family meeting. The home visits mirror a decades-old model developed by a Sacramento nonprofit organization, Parent Teacher Home Visits, which is used in 27 states.

Eight years after the program launched, D.C. educators have made more relationship-building home visits than any school system in the country — even more than bigger systems, according to Gina Martinez-Keddy, executive director of Parent Teacher Home Visits, which tracks these interactions.

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During the 2018-2019 academic year, teachers in the traditional public school system visited the homes of more than 11,000 students, which amounts to more than 20 percent of the system’s children. The charter sector has conducted nearly 2,700 home visits through the Flamboyan partnership.

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Most visits, which are not mandatory, involve families with students in elementary school, but for the first time, teachers at three neighborhood high schools were trained to conduct relationship-building home visits this academic year. In all grades, teachers are instructed to ask parents about their hopes and dreams for their children.

“Home visits are for everyone, they benefit everyone,” said Justin Jones, senior managing director for D.C. family engagement at the Flamboyan Foundation. The goal is to ensure that every family builds a relationship with at least one adult at their child’s school.

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But it’s unclear how much the home visits contribute to improving student attendance.

A 2018 Johns Hopkins University study linked the visits to a reduction in chronic absenteeism in four large school districts, determining that students who received visits were more likely to be proficient on reading exams. Another Hopkins study focusing on 4,000 elementary students at a dozen D.C. schools found that children whose families received a home visit during the 2013-2014 academic year had 24 percent fewer absences than peers whose families did not receive a visit.

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But citywide data for the District’s traditional public schools show that chronic absenteeism rates have remained stagnant.

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Some Flamboyan and education leaders emphasized that not all benefits of home visits can be measured quantitatively.

“We are at our best when there is a strong relationship between the school and the family,” D.C. schools chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said. “This is all about the relationship-building process.”

Zick said the visits have allowed her to establish rapport with parents and understand her students — and know how to help them — in more meaningful ways.

On multiple visits, Zick discovered that her students live in cramped and crowded quarters. She subtly tries to provide those students with extra privacy and quiet time during the school day so they can decompress.

Once, she visited the home of a student whose immigrant parents spoke little English. But a cousin who was in middle school lived with the family. And that’s when it hit Zick: Maybe the cousin could read at night with the first-grader.

In August, Ferebee joined staff from Anacostia High as they conducted a visit to the home of sophomore Japan Spells. Ferebee and Anacostia Principal William Haith sat on the living room couch with Spells and her mother, Donitra Bankins. Japan’s cheerleading coach, who serves as the school’s family engagement specialist, was also there.

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“What are your expectations this year?” Haith asked Spells a week before the start of the academic year. This is the first school year that Anacostia teachers have received Flamboyan training and are conducting relationship-building home visits.

“This year, I want to make honor roll all four quarters,” Spells said.

Ferebee asked her what she wanted to do after high school.

Go to college and study medicine, she said.

“Do you have biology at Anacostia?” her mother asked.

“When I got my schedule, it said Advanced Placement Biology,” Spells said.

“That’s a class that will challenge you,” Haith told the sophomore and her mother.

The conversation ranged from the use of cellphones to the more lighthearted — Ferebee seemed especially delighted by Spells’s affection for the Six Flags amusement park, which she visits frequently. But talk about the teen’s future embodied the purpose of home visits for high-schoolers.

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They discussed college admission tests and asked what Anacostia High could do to help her reach those goals. And they learned about Spells’s passion for the sciences.

The casual visit, according to Haith, was a success. Anacostia educators aim to visit the homes of 85 percent of students by February.

“It’s important that we distinguish between a punitive type of home visit and relationship building,” Haith said. “I can’t just be a principal inside the school building. I also have to be one outside of school.”

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