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House Calls

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No one knows how many teachers or principals make home visits—although the number is probably on the rise.

At another stop, a parent hesitantly mentions a story she's heard that Kennedy turned a deaf ear to parents who were unhappy about the use of portable classrooms for Lange's 7th graders. Kennedy takes the opportunity to dispel the rumor, explaining that after hearing parent concerns, she decided that only 6th graders would occupy the trailers.

Later she sums up: "If people get to know you, they say: 'I can't believe Carole wouldn't work with us on that. Has anybody talked with her?'"

A Revelation

Home visits are not just for veterans like Carole Kennedy.

Tim Messenger, a third-year teacher in Flint, Mich., stumbled onto the technique during his rookie year. One day, he recalls, the counselor at Scott Elementary School had to take one of Messenger's 1st graders home. The child had been disruptive. On the spur of the moment, the young teacher decided to tag along. "I had just never thought of going to a child's home," he recalls, but the idea intrigued him.

And the visit itself was nothing short of a revelation. When Messenger met the child's father that day, he seemed unconcerned with his son's outburst, as if the child had only done what was natural. "Right away, it changed the way I dealt with that student," Messenger says. "He had no connection with anything in school because no one was helping him to connect to anything."

Messenger not only saw the child in a new light, he came away with valuable information: The father was proudly American Indian. "I could pull that into our conversation in class, give my student some glory he hadn't had before. If I hadn't been to his home, I wouldn't have appreciated the role that played, that he held it dear to his heart."

The child is a behavior problem, still violent, Messenger acknowledges. But--and this can be important to a child for whom school is unrelentingly negative--the boy now regards Messenger as an ally. "The more connections you have with a child, the more credibility you have, the more they are willing to give in return."

Home Territory

Inspired by that visit, Messenger went to see all 19 of his 1st graders during the first few weeks of school last year. To his astonishment, at the school's open house just after he finished, a parent or a guardian showed up for each youngster. And the payoff continued. Messenger's class won four top prizes for parent participation at Scott last year.

Granted, Scott Elementary has also benefited from the Flint Community School District's program to reduce class size--a change that the teacher says helped him have the time to visit 19 families. But it's also true that Messenger got his results in a struggling Rust Belt city school where two-thirds of the families are African-American and many have low incomes--the kind of population that often lags behind the white middle class. Though most of his students are black, Messenger is white.

"When we go to the home, I think the message is: 'We really care about your children and we need your help.' "

Carole L. Kennedy
Lange Middle School

Scott's principal, Sally Creech, says that while she was pleased by Messenger's success, she wasn't surprised. As a young teacher in early-childhood programs, she says, "I spent a lot of time in homes, and I was well aware of the impact of meeting parents on their own territory."

Despite experiences like Messenger's, home visits remain a rarity. Once, they were probably less uncommon and less necessary. Carole Kennedy remembers when her high school home economics teacher came to her family's home in tiny Mendon, Mo., to evaluate a project. Kennedy had chosen, as her assignment, to redecorate her bedroom.

On the Rise

In that small-town past, school and home were interlaced because many people knew each other in more than one role--teachers were neighbors, fellow members of the choir, kin. But these days, home visits are a way of weaving a social fabric that otherwise wouldn't exist.

No one knows how many teachers or principals make home visits--although the number is probably on the rise. What research there is on the topic looks mostly at programs for disadvantaged preschoolers, where the important role of parents in their children's success has been recognized since the beginning of Head Start 30 years ago.

In the school setting, people hired specifically to make contact with families--sometimes social workers, sometimes people with less formal training--make the bulk of home visits. For example:

  • To boost parent involvement, the Houston Independent School District this year launched a program that puts "parent educators" in 30 of its schools. The workers, who are chosen for their potential rapport with parents, spend the morning giving parenting workshops and much of the afternoon making home visits.
  • Missouri pays for outreach workers in schools, the backbone of its Caring Communities program. One aim of the $30 million initiative is to help families better care for their children, and Caring Communities specialists make frequent home visits to that end.
  • In Talbot County, Md., an after-school program for middle schoolers at risk of dropping out begins with a home visit from the coordinator or his assistant.

"Generally it's not teachers and administrators who pay the home visits, it's people who are hired as home-school liaisons," says Anne T. Henderson, an expert on parent involvement at the Washington office of the Center for Law and Education, a nonprofit advocacy group. "If it's done well, those people are from the community and share the culture and the background of the people they are visiting."

Not Either/Or

But experts maintain that the question of who visits should not be a matter of either/or. Visits from family-liaison workers don't replace those from principals and teachers. Rather, the schools that most need such workers are also the ones likely to most benefit from the extra outreach of faculty members. Teachers and principals might not be the best qualified to grasp family needs, but they do uniquely define the work of the school.

Then, too, as Tim Messenger discovered, visits not only open up lines of communication with parents, they also provide teachers and administrators with valuable information about their students. Sometimes the information is specific to a family; often it is cultural.

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