House Calls

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Columbia, Mo.

Want to get to know your students and their families? Knock on some doors.

School symbol? Check.

Chairs? Pencil sharpeners? Delivered. Mounted.

Home visits? Scheduled.

Carole L. Kennedy is opening a brand-new middle school on the outskirts of this college town, and the veteran principal wouldn't dream of starting the year without visiting some families. She'd as soon leave the walls blank or forget to meet with teachers.

Home visits are, simply, part of what Kennedy does as an educator. Back as a rookie teacher in the north central part of the state, she visited a few homes. But it was as an elementary principal in a suburb of Kansas City, Mo., that she started championing the practice. There, her school was one of three piloting a parent-involvement program that depended in part on home visits by counselors, teachers, and principals.

Kennedy is one of a tiny but growing band of educators who are prepared to knock on doors. These pioneers believe visits win out over every other one-shot method of fostering parents' support, which experts have long cited as a key to student achievement.

Many reformers and advocates back the effort. They say that while traditional methods of contacting parents may have worked well enough for middle-class youngsters in an era of stay-at-home mothers, new approaches are needed now.

Visits take time, test the faint of heart, and sometimes meet organized teacher opposition. But if the barriers can be overcome, supporters of the practice say the payoff is well worth the effort.

"It's a knockout" for education, maintains Joe Conroy, a Michigan state senator who sponsored legislation a few years ago that would have required some teachers in the state to visit homes once a year. Even though his measure didn't pass, he says teachers and administrators should be making home visits as a matter of educational strategy.

"The school has a responsibility to reach out," adds Kennedy, who as president last year of the National Association of Elementary School Principals often spoke about the value of home visits. "When we go to the home, I think the message is: 'We really care about your children and we need your help.'"

Questions and Praise

At the moment, Lange Middle School's home visits are largely Kennedy's job. The school doesn't have routines yet, and only the palest outline of a culture, so the principal is setting the pace.

And by 1 p.m. on this steam bath of a day, she seems to have hit her stride in a scruffy neighborhood with a reputation for drug-dealing. Stepping out of her Chevrolet Lumina onto a concrete parking pad littered with cigarette butts, the bespectacled, 57-year-old principal scoops up a stray basketball at the very moment four little boys tumble out the door.

"Who plays?" Kennedy calls, dribbling the ball across the stoop. The oldest boys, about 6 and 7, stop on the brown, wispy grass and stare at the stranger, whose vest-and-pants outfit suggests the peppy grandmother she in fact is.

Visits take time, test the faint of heart, and sometimes meet organized teacher opposition.

"I do," says one. Passing off the ball, Kennedy reaches for the hand of each boy and shakes it with the aplomb of a small-town mayor. When she visits, dogs get pats. Parents win praise. And every family member ends up with questions: How was your summer? So, you like to fish? Want help with that painting job?

Inside the disordered little house, the principal greets Aaron Perry's grandmother, who has been fetched from the back. A woman watching a television soap opera holds up her left hand in a kind of half-hearted salute.

'You Call Me'

When Kennedy called the home earlier in the day to set up the appointment, she carefully asked for "the parent of Aaron Perry." That request produced Aaron's grandmother, who said she'd be "pleased and honored" for the principal to come. But Aaron, who will be a 6th grader at Lange this year, is nowhere to be seen. He's asleep, his grandmother politely explains as the little boys dash around the living room.

"Anytime you see a yellow piece of paper come home from school," says the principal, who has taken a seat next to the grandmother, "you know it's something for you to look at."

She tells the matriarch, in a way that also includes the woman at the TV and a small girl who has appeared by her grandmother's side, about the upcoming open house: tours of the new building, school pictures, schedules handed out. With Kennedy's prompting, the grandmother asks about bus times, which leads to a discussion of unruly behavior at the bus stop and finally to the grandmother's account of some trouble Aaron was in last year:

"At school the principal said Aaron was hitting this boy, but they was double-teaming him."

"That's what happens sometimes, unfortunately," replies Kennedy, nodding sympathetically. "If he starts to have a problem, you call me. We'll do the same for you." She has written the school's number boldly on the yellow school newsletter she brought with her.

When Kennedy gets up to leave, even the woman at the TV utters a clear goodbye. Back in the car, the principal says she hopes the grandmother will call if the need arises. As it turns out, the grandmother does more than call. A week and a half later, Kennedy says, she showed up at the open house with Aaron and two other boys from among her 44 grandchildren.

Words of Reassurance

Many elements of Kennedy's visits are the same: the firm handshakes, the "props"--a floor plan of the new school, the school supply list, the newsletter--and an invitation to the open house. Kennedy always asks both the child and the parent if they have questions, and she urges them to call or drop by the office if anything is not going well.

Usually, too, there's a word of reassurance for the student. "Don't worry about the building," she tells one boy. "It's big, but you'll have a lot of kids with you."

But the visits vary, too, at least as much as the school's families. Lange Middle is several miles north of Columbia in an area that has a reputation for being far from exclusive. Cornfields are giving way to cul-de-sacs, and trailer parks curve around bungalows that once sat in isolation. Most of the families in the area served by Lange are middle class; some are well-off and others are poor. About 16 percent of the Columbia district's 15,600 students are African-American.

As much as Kennedy would like to visit the families of all her students--6th graders who are new to middle school and 7th graders who attended another school last year--she can't come close. The school is expected to open with an enrollment of about 800. So she has picked some students with rocky pasts--those who could use a fresh start, according to administrators at their former schools. And then she mixed in some others.

Two incoming 6th graders, the rambunctious kind who can easily slip into misbehavior, are gaga for drawing, Kennedy learns on her rounds. She files that information away because there's the possibility of an art club after school. Another student she visits is about to undergo an operation for a severe spinal condition. He'll need a home tutor, and Kennedy promises that she'll see if the tutor who came to him last year is available again.

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