Home Work

By Theresa Johnston — March 01, 2001 9 min read
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It’s a neighborhood that has seen better days. Some of the old wooden bungalows have bars on the windows; others have peeling paint. But if 3rd grade teacher Martin Bazua is feeling nervous about his visit to south Sacramento, a poor, high-crime area in California’s capital city, he doesn’t show it. Pulling up to the curb in his blue Toyota pickup, the Woodbine Elementary teacher hops out and waves a cheery hello to one of his new students, Ruben Martinez. In the front yard, the little boy and his father are hurriedly raking leaves. In the living room of the tiny yellow house, it’s clear that Mom has been busy with the Windex. “They go to a lot of trouble to clean their homes. I’ve noticed that,” the 20-year veteran teacher remarks quietly. “It’s clear they want to make a good impression.”

Bazua will earn about $30 in extra pay for this friendly 20-minute house call—part of an unusual California program that encourages teachers to make personal visits to each of their students’ homes right at the beginning of the school year. Some of the parents Bazua visits, like Raquel and Ruben Martinez Sr., have a good command of English and a basic understanding of the American school system. Others are much poorer, particularly the Hmong refugees who have flocked to Sacramento from Southeast Asia in recent years. Yet despite the barriers of poverty and language, Bazua says, nearly all his home visits have been surprisingly productive—inspiring, even. “Within the past three years, I’ve probably gone to about 150 homes,” he notes proudly, “and there was only one case where a parent said she didn’t want a teacher in the house. Generally, it’s been a very positive experience.”

Bazua isn’t the only California teacher ringing doorbells these days. Last year, state legislators passed Assembly Bill 33, providing grants of up to $40,000, depending on enrollment, for campuses where at least half of the teachers and parents agree to home visits. So far, some 400 California schools have elected to participate in the voluntary program, which has drawn the attention of educators and legislators from as far away as New York, New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, and Washington, D.C. “People are calling me and saying, ‘Can you come and tell us how you did this?’ There’s been an explosion of interest,” notes Sandy Smith, a Sacramento community activist who was instrumental in launching the program.

Sacramento schools began experimenting with home visits in 1998 after several parents voiced concerns about the chilly reception they felt they were getting in some area classrooms. “A lot of us had questions we wanted to ask, but we were made to feel unwelcome, like all we were supposed to do was drop off our child and leave,” recalls Jocelyn Graves, mother of an 8th grader and a high school senior. She started brainstorming with members of Sacramento Area Congregations Together, a faith-based grassroots community organization, and they hit upon the idea of inviting district teachers to talk with parents in their homes. Later, they challenged district Superintendent Jim Sweeney to support the concept. He went on 20 home visits and found the experience so powerful that he allotted $20,000 in federal funding for each of seven elementary schools and two middle schools willing to adopt home visit programs of their own.

Organizers stress that these visits are not meant to replace in-class conferences, nor are they about policing the children’s home environments (though by state law, truly dangerous or unhealthy situations must be reported). Their real aim is to raise student achievement by building solid relationships with families early in the school year, particularly in poor neighborhoods, where parents seldom set foot on school grounds. Unlike traditional conferences, home visits usually are scheduled in the early evening, making it easier for parents who can’t hire baby sitters or take time off from their jobs. Meeting on the parents’ turf also can defuse some of the anxiety inherent in the teacher-parent relationship, explains Jennifer Ching- Moff, Sacramento Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project coordinator. “At traditional conferences, parents are often intimidated. They come in, shake their heads yes or no, and the teacher does all the talking. But in home visits, I’ve found that the listening comes easier on the teacher’s part.”

Convincing teachers to sign up for the voluntary program has not always been easy, though: In the pilot program’s first year, nearly 40 percent of teachers approached declined to participate. Many voiced concerns about the time home visits would take. Others were worried about their personal safety, given south Sacramento’s reputation for poverty and crime. (Nearly three-fourths of the elementary students in the Sacramento City Unified School District qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches.) “I personally was scared,” recalls Ching-Moff, a former 3rd grade teacher. “I was afraid of what I was going to see. I thought my car was going to get broken into. I thought the neighborhood was dangerous.” And, she says, there were walls within her own mind: “I had the assumption that these parents didn’t care, that they would be unwilling to help.” Ching-Moff says her views of parents have changed significantly as a result of her visits: “I now understand that parents really do want to help, but they don’t know how. They really, truly care about their kids, but they don’t have the resources or skills to help them do better in schools.”

Today, the percentage of Sacramento teachers choosing not to participate in home visits has dropped to around 20 percent, thanks largely to strong principal support and intensive staff development. Currently, Sacramento ACT provides three hours of teacher training at participating schools throughout the state, followed by another session for feedback and celebration after the teachers have made their first rounds. The training sessions stress listening skills, cultural sensitivity, and teamwork. (Teachers are encouraged to make their home visits in pairs, both for their safety and to help with translation.) Parent volunteers work with the teachers to anticipate different scenarios teachers might encounter: how to end their home visits in a timely and respectful manner, for example, or how to politely handle offers of food and drink that well-meaning families may heap upon them.

Like most home visits, Bazua’s trek to the Martinez house takes place after the parents are home from work, at 5 sharp on a Friday afternoon. Dressed in a blue denim shirt embroidered with the Woodbine Elementary School Wildcats logo, he compliments the couple on their home and takes a seat at the table. Then he pulls out a blue home-visit folder containing a sample reading log, a homework policy sheet, and a bar graph documenting young Ruben’s scores on recent math quizzes. The pace is upbeat, the focus is kept on academic expectations rather than behavioral issues, and the tone is warm.

Before long, the young parents are visibly relaxing and asking questions familiar to 3rd grade teachers everywhere: Is it OK if their son reads Pokémon books for the nightly reading assignment? (Sure.) Is it OK if they show him “their” way of doing multiplication? (Certainly.) Could the teacher please send home copies of their son’s math tests, so they can see what areas he’s not understanding? (Of course.)

Later, Bazua will fill out a brief follow-up report, bringing his total time spent on the visit, including the initial phone call, to about an hour. As far as he’s concerned, it’s time well spent. “Before this program, the relationship between me and the parents was probably the weakest part of my teaching,” he reflects. “I never felt a connection with the parents. In fact, I sometimes felt alienated.” Home visits also have made Bazua, a third-generation Mexican American, more empathetic to the plight of his most disadvantaged students. “At school, you see them in their uniforms. But when you go to their homes, you see the tattered carpet, the 10 kids running out of the broken screen door with flies coming in and out, and you start sensing what these kids are living under.”

For Ching-Moff, a suburban-reared Chinese American, the visits also have been an eye-opener. She used to wonder, for example, why two of her 3rd graders arrived at school so early every morning. Then she went to their house—and saw the cat, two lizards, and five birds. “I realized that the children wanted to be at school,” she says, “to leave that environment.” Home visits also made her rethink some of her homework assignments. She had been puzzled about why a number of her Hmong students weren’t completing their math papers—measuring the perimeters of tables and beds—until she went to their homes and discovered that they didn’t have any furniture. “I realized that I needed to change my approach and offer students extensions of my lessons during recess time or after school.”

Though such anecdotal support abounds, when it comes to statistics, the impact of home visits is harder to measure. Geni Cowan, a professor of education at California State University-Sacramento who has studied the pilot project, says it’s “way too soon to tell” whether home visits are having a direct effect on student performance. While it’s true that standardized test scores are way up across the Sacramento district in the past three years, she says that may be due to a variety of factors, including state-mandated class-size reduction, new reading programs, intensified staff development efforts, and campaigns to improve student attenance. Nevertheless, Cowan notes, “objective data overwhelmingly indicated that parents thought the visits were useful bridges with the schools and improved their attitudes toward schools and teachers.”

Teachers and principals also have told Cowan that they are convinced the program has made a difference, particularly in the areas of homework and classroom behavior. “Since a teacher visited the home, I notice that the parents are more supportive and more on task with the child at home,” one program participant said in an interview Cowan conducted. Added another: “The kids know I might go to their house again, so they are better behaved.” Carol Sharp, principal at the 424-student Susan B. Anthony Elementary School in south Sacramento, notes that annual suspension rates have plummeted, from around a hundred to just a handful— an improvement she attributes directly to home visits. “Now, when there’s a problem, the teachers feel more comfortable about calling the parents and saying: ‘So- and-so had a bad day. Can you talk to him?’ ” she notes happily. “When the child knows that the teacher and parents are working together, things don’t seem to escalate. I see a whole different tone of trust.”


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