In this file photo from 2013, the Watkins family meets with Stanton Elementary teachers, Samantha Antunez,, middle right, and Melissa Bryant, right, in Washington, D.C. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)
Columnist

Dear new D.C. Public Schools chancellor:

You have not been named yet, but I am told your appointment is coming soon. Whoever you are, I hope you will take this message seriously. I am not asking you to do anything new; I am simply requesting that you preserve two vulnerable D.C. initiatives with great potential for good.

First, I want you to protect the Family Engagement Partnership. (My second suggestion comes next week.) Among other things, the partnership has D.C. teachers visiting students’ neighborhoods to talk with their parents and guardians. Almost no other school districts do this. The vast majority fear that teachers don’t have time for it and that it would cost too much and be too risky.

Let’s put aside for a moment the appalling and untested assumption that teachers aren’t safe in students’ neighborhoods. What’s important is that D.C. schools have been doing this for five years. Struggling urban school systems rarely get credit for their successes. Home visits in the District are a prime example of that.

There were 848 visits in the 2011-2012 school year. Last year’s number was about 14 times greater — 12,095 visits. This school year, the program is working in 31 schools and is expected to have at least 12,000 home visits, and probably more.

Teachers in the program have been smart and careful. With financial support from the D.C. Public Schools and the Flamboyan Foundation, they use methods developed by educators in Sacramento, home of the nonprofit Parent Teacher Home Visits network.

The D.C. teachers get parents’ permission to visit homes. They don’t take notes. They visit the homes of all kinds of students, from best to worst. They mostly listen. They come in pairs after school or on weekends, each being paid $34 per visit, with some extra for teacher leaders at each school. One teacher told me she offers to meet the parents at the local Starbucks or Panera Bread if they like.

This is a rare feat. Carrie Rose, executive director of Parent Teacher Home Visits, said that about 40 school districts in the country are training and conducting visits using this model. There were 30,000 home visits in 17 states and the District in the 2014-2015 year, but the portion of districts involved is just about three-tenths of 1 percent. Although a few other places do visits, it is unlikely the total is more than 1 percent of all districts.

According to Rose, time and fear inhibit such initiatives. “We all know that parents and teachers are often in survival mode, with day-to-day responsibilities and curriculum mandates,” she said. “Finding time to do a visit and then to reflect on the experience can be very challenging.”

More disturbing is the role of unexamined bias. Rose said the first question she gets from school district administrators is, “How can we guarantee safety?” Rose notes that in public education today most teachers are white and most students and their families are not. “Often,” she said, “teachers do not live in the neighborhoods where they teach . . . [but] when teachers and parents meet in person outside of the institutional setting, they let go of previous assumptions about each other.”

The D.C. program has handled the security issue by sending teachers in pairs and setting up visits in advance. The impact on schooling has been impressive. A Johns Hopkins University study found that D.C. students who had a home visit had 24 percent fewer absences and were 1.5 times more likely to read at or above grade level. Ninety-six percent of parents visited said the experience was beneficial to their relationship with the school, and 91 percent said it helped them feel more confident about supporting their children academically.

Doesn’t that seem worth saving? Next week, I’ll discuss the District’s equally daring efforts to cooperate with charter schools.

Sincerely,

Jay Mathews