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Published in Print: December 1, 1999, as Home Visits Lead To Stronger Ties, Altered Perceptions

Home Visits Lead To Stronger Ties, Altered Perceptions

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One recent evening after school, David Fisher arrives at Teresa Sanchez's tidy home armed with a "homework box" filled with worksheets, flashcards, and other tools of the teaching trade. As a participant in a program here that pays teachers in schools serving low-income neighborhoods to make house calls, the 2nd grade teacher has arranged this visit to show the mother of one of his students how she can help her daughter brush up on math.

Speaking with the teacher in her native Spanish, Ms. Sanchez soon shifts the discussion away from arithmetic to tell Mr. Fisher that she is grateful for the work he's doing, and the underlying purpose for the visit becomes evident. More than anything else, school officials say, the home- visit program, in its second year in the 51,000-student Sacramento City Unified School District, is about strengthening the ties between parents and teachers.

"Everybody says they want to involve parents, but they frequently don't know what they're looking for," Superintendent Jim Sweeney said. "What we've decided is that it's all about forming relationships. When you form relationships, things happen."

State Funds Approved

The academic results of those relationships proved encouraging in the nine Sacramento schools that participated in the program last year, and state lawmakers took notice. Under a $15 million initiative signed by Gov. Gray Davis in October, schools throughout California can now apply for state money to pay teachers for overtime spent visiting students' homes.

"I hope the program takes off and snowballs into other states," said Democratic Assemblywoman Nell Soto, who sponsored the legislation. "You don't need a third eye to see the difference between the students whose parents areinvolved and those whose parents aren't involved."

Sacramento district officials agreed to launch a home-visit program in the fall of 1998 after representatives from Sacramento Area Congregations Together approached them the previous spring. As a member of the Pacific Institute for Community Organization, a statewide network that seeks to bring the concerns of ordinary citizens to the policy arena, Sacramento ACT had already pitched the home-visit program to teachers and principals in several schools before taking the matter to the superintendent's office.

In the end, the district allotted about $20,000 per school for nine schools to pay teachers roughly $27 an hour if they agreed to conduct home visits. This year, the program was expanded to 13 schools.

Principals participating in the program say their efforts have been rewarded with better student behavior, improved homework quality, and closer, more open relationships with the communities they serve.

"We had 600 parents come to our potluck last year," said Carol L. Sharp, the principal of the 450-student Susan B. Anthony Elementary School. "The magnitude of the support was amazing. We would not have had that turnout if teachers hadn't gone to the homes and invited the parents personally."

Particularly in poor neighborhoods where teachers often complain about a general lack of parental involvement, home visits can be more effective than traditional parent-teacher conferences, which take place at school, said Jim Keddy, the executive director of Sacramento ACT, an interfaith federation of 28 congregations and school organizations. "The parents said what made a difference was being sat down and talked to, instead of being talked at."

Although she plans to attend the upcoming parent- teacher conference with Mr. Fisher, Ms. Sanchez said in Spanish, "I sometimes feel excited or nervous at school. It's better to speak at home because the conferences go too fast."

Teachers also report that the visits have changed some of their perceptions about the ethnically diverse, economically hard- pressed communities they serve and have given them a greater understanding of their students.

Jennifer Ching-Moff, a 3rd grade teacher at Woodbine Elementary School, says families often serve food or drinks during the home visits, or otherwise open their arms to her. And during one visit to the home of a Hmong student last year, the teacher discovered that the family didn't have tables, beds, or other furniture, but proudly displayed four chalkboards mounted on the walls.

"I appreciate and understand my students so much more," Ms. Ching-Moff said.

Seeking Higher Scores

Beyond the anecdotal support for home visits, district leaders are encouraged by some preliminary findings that teacher house calls could pay off in higher scores on state tests. According to an evaluation of the Sacramento program conducted by Geni Cowan, a professor in the College of Education at California State University-Sacramento, schools participating in the home-visit project logged sharper increases in test scores from 1998 to 1999 than schools that did not.

Although Ms. Cowan emphasizes that the differences in test scores could not be specifically tied to the home visits, the 4th grade results on the Stanford Achievement Test- 9th Edition for the elementary schools participating in the program increased by averages of 6.5 percentage points and 9.8 percentage points in reading and mathematics. The district averaged gains of 5 percentage points in reading and 7 percentage points in math.

Instead of simply reporting information, teachers often use home visits to show parents strategies they can employ at home to help their children academically.

During a recent visit with the father of Angelina Arellano, a high- achieving student in her 3rd grade class, Ms. Ching-Moff brought along Angelina's Stanford-9 results to show Mr. Arellano where his daughter could do better. The teacher then played a tape of the girl reading a book, asked Mr. Arellano to encourage the girl to read more smoothly, and passed him worksheets that included tips on preparing for the test.

"I think sometimes she feels nervous when she reads to me if she doesn't know a word," Mr. Arellano told the teacher. "We'll have to work hard with her."

Despite the financial incentives and apparent rewards, not all teachers eagerly knock on doors. Ms. Cowan's evaluation of the Sacramento home-visit program found that 39 percent of the 241 teachers at the nine participating schools elected not to visit homes. The teachers most often said they simply didn't have time, but some indicated that they didn't feel safe.

Training for Visits

To ease such anxieties, ACT conducts a three-hour training session at the beginning of the school year for teachers in participating schools. The trainers demonstrate through role-playing how a productive home visit would progress and what kinds of information a teacher should impart to the parents. The training program also attempts to debunk some of the misconceptions teachers may have about the communities they serve.

"Because a lot of teachers don't live in our community, they think of our homes as slum homes," said Jocelyn Graves, a parent and ACT volunteer who works with teachers during role-playing training sessions. "They need to get rid of that stereotype."

But while the Sacramento program has so far been implemented only in low-income schools, the state program aims to serve a broader range of schools by reserving 25 percent of the aid for schools in moderate- to upper-income communities. Schools with a higher proportion of students receiving free lunches will have access to the other 75 percent of the state money.

The state education department will likely accept applications for the home-visit program next spring.

The legislation that created the statewide program also includes a requirement that all participating teachers receive training on how to talk effectively with parents, which Ms. Cowan of California State University says is critical.

"After they had the training, teachers had a lot of ideas about what they could do [with home visits]," Ms Cowan said. "Teachers who didn't bother with the training were so unbelievably resistant."

Vol. 19, Issue 14, Page 6

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