In this photo from August 2013, Stanton Elementary teacher Samantha Antunez chats with her student Xavier Ferrell, 9, as his father Jerome Watkins excuses himself to take care of his young son, Nehemiah Watkins, 4, during a teacher home-visit in Washington, D.C. The school system has been experimenting with teachers visiting students' homes. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)
Columnist

Dave Levin thought he was going to be fired from his Houston school the day he picked up a huge, unruly sixth-grader and dropped him in his seat. He had touched a kid. That was a big no-no. He felt so bad that he went to the boy’s small wood-frame home after school — another thing he had been told never to do — and apologized to the boy’s mother.

To his surprise, the woman seemed pleased by his visit.

“Listen,” she said, “you’re the first teacher that ever came to the house. Do whatever you have to do to my son. He doesn’t listen to me. Do whatever you have to do.”

Meeting the mother caused the boy to behave a bit better. Levin and his friend Mike Feinberg, another teacher, began to do home visits regularly, making them part of the KIPP charter school network they founded.

Two decades later, several other charters and even some regular public schools have begun to reject the traditional view that parent contacts should be confined to the phone or meetings at the school. The District’s new Family Engagement Partnership has just led to a $20,000 award for history and reading support teacher Kristen Whitaker, the catalyst behind more than 200 home visits by Columbia Heights Education Campus faculty this school year.

[District officials turn to home visits to boost schools]

Whitaker, who plans to use the money to fund a summer camp program, has been relentless. She encountered parents reluctant to participate, “but I don’t take no for an answer,” she said. She said she “offered to meet them at the local Starbucks or Panera or anywhere in the community that fit their comfort level. I would treat both the parent and the student to the drink of their choice and have a relaxing get-to-know-you conversation. After I established trust and the parents knew I was not trying to judge them, they would then invite me to their homes for our follow-up meeting.”

Schools often say they are trying to involve parents, but that usually translates into stiff, arms-length gestures such as sending notes home or holding back-to-school nights.

Whitaker and the other D.C. home-visiting teachers are trained and paid with funds from the D.C. public schools and the Flamboyan Foundation. Using a model developed by educators in Sacramento, the teachers visit in pairs after school or on weekends. They don’t do surprise visits. They don’t make assumptions about kids or parents. They don’t take notes. They listen more than talk.

The idea is to visit every family.

“Picking a certain group of students to visit could make home visits seem like a bad thing, and that is not the case,” said Whitaker, who won the money as 2015 Family Teacher of the Year, an award sponsored by Toyota and the National Center for Families Learning. “Top students as well as struggling students all deserve the same amount of dedication and support.”

The teachers don’t discuss how the students are doing in class. They prefer to listen to what the parents and students think of the school and what they want from it. But the effect on her classroom, Whitaker said, has been apparent. There is less misbehavior, and there are fewer missed assignments. “My students knew I had a direct connection to their parent or guardian,” she said. “A kid knows I can call his or her guardian on my phone in an instant.”

The teachers are paid $34 a visit, plus some extra for teacher leaders at each school. Vincent Baxter, D.C. schools deputy chief of family engagement, said that 21 city schools have the program and that more will get it soon. He said studies by Johns Hopkins University and Mathematica Policy Research are underway to see whether the D.C. home visits raise achievement.

Very few other public schools are trying this. Principals say they fear what might happen to teachers visiting certain neighborhoods. Yet it appears, at least in the case of Whitaker and the other Columbia Heights teachers, that what the visitors find is nothing more than gratified parents willing to help them create better lives for their children.