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Education Teacher Leaders Network

Going Home

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 05, 2009 5 min read
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“Why do you want to come to my house?” responded a parent over the phone after I told her the purpose of my call.

“I just want to come by and introduce myself, meet you, and get ideas from you about how I can be a better teacher for José. He’s doing fine in class, but I’m sure I could be doing something better,” I replied.

“Did José do something wrong?” the parent said.

“No, he’s doing fine. I try to make as many of these kinds of home visits each year as I can. It will only take twenty minutes or so.”

“OK,” the mother finally answered.

I spent 19 years as a community organizer, visiting people in their homes, so it seemed natural to continue that work when I became a high school teacher five years ago. After all, what better way could there be to get to know my students and the environment where they spend most of their time?

I’ve always tried to make these visits early enough in the school year so they occur prior to problems coming up in the classroom. Of course, since I teach in a high school, it’s obviously not feasible for me to visit the homes of all my students. However, I can spot pretty early on who the students are who might face some exceptional challenges, and I try to visit their homes as soon as I can so that their parents can have what might be an unusual experience for them—a positive meeting with a teacher about their child.

I always call ahead to schedule a time, and follow up with a reminder call on the day before my visit. During the visit itself, I keep in mind the critique of schools by the Industrial Areas Foundation (the organizing group for which I worked). That is: Schools spend a lot of time with parents in one-way “communication” but very little in two way “conversation.”

‘Funds of Knowledge’

This kind of conversation is not only focused on the child, but also on learning the stories of the parent, including their hopes and dreams for themselves and their families. In addition, it’s an exchange of stories, where I also talk about what led me to teaching and my own goals.

In addition to building a relationship with the parents and solidifying one with their child, these kinds of conversations can create many other possibilities. For instance, immigrant parents whom I visited developed the idea of having our school provide computers and home Internet access so that entire families could have more opportunities to study English. I was not only able to learn what these parents thought would help their children and themselves; down the line, I was also able to help other parents who had the same interest connect with each other and help us develop a plan of action.

As a result, the Luther Burbank High School Family Literacy Project has produced dramatic English-assessment gains for students and was the Grand Prize winner of the International Reading Association Presidential Award For Reading and Technology.

And home visits have had other meaningful benefits for students, families, and me. I’ve been able to gain a greater sense of the “funds of knowledge” that reside in family members—the real-world experience that they can offer to their children and, if invited, to others as well.

For example, in one home I saw several models of the qeej, which is a Hmong musical instrument made out of bamboo pipes. By asking the parents about them, I learned that the father made and repaired them. He agreed to bring them into our ESL class, and the resulting music lessons were good for both English development and for greater intercultural understanding.

The Home Visit Project

It’s one thing for a single teacher to make home visits—it’s something many teachers have done for a very long time, making significant personal impacts on individual students. But it’s another thing to organize these kinds of visits on a systematic school-wide and even district-wide basis.

That’s where The Parent Teacher Home Visit Project comes in. The PTHVP began in Sacramento with a partnership between a community organization (Sacramento ACT), our local teachers’ union, and the Sacramento City Unified School District. Its purpose was to spread the concept of home visiting (emphasizing the importance of developing relationships with parents) throughout the district by providing training, support, and stipends to teachers.

Since the project came together over 10 years ago, thousands of home visits have been made in the district (including hundreds done by teachers and other school staff at our school), and the PTHVP has worked with other school districts throughout the state of California and in the U.S. to organize similar efforts—offering workshops, site training, and other resources.

Independent evaluations have attributed increased student achievement and better parent-teacher communication to these home visits, and the PTHVP has been praised by former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, teacher union leaders, and education writers. (This story from Education World has more details about PTHVP’s history and similar programs in other U.S. cities.)

One important reason for the success of the PTHVP is that teachers are compensated for their time if they choose to participate voluntarily. This added incentive is important to help teachers make time to do the visits since many feel they already have considerable uncompensated responsibilities and have to work extra hours to accomplish them.

Federal stimulus monies could be one source of funding and, in fact, the U.S. Department of Education recently included teacher home visits as a recommended use of stimulus monies in its publication, “Using ARRA Funds To Drive School Reform and Improvement.” Title I funds (federal support to schools in low-income communities), private grants, and other state and federal monies designed to promote parent participation in the life of their child’s schools are other sources that have been used to fund these kinds of visits.

I think they are a worthy investments, because home visits are one thing that I know can have dramatic, far-reaching results. As parent Jocelyn Graves said in an interview about the PTHVP: “I have changed a whole lot. Now I’m not afraid to ask questions about my child. At one time, I would never do that. If I had never had that home visit, my son would never have walked across that [graduation] stage.”

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