House Calls

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"The more connections you have with a child, the more credibility you have, the more they are willing to give in return."

Tim Messenger,
Flint, Mich.

Many experts and advocates stress the importance of such knowledge for successful teaching.

"There's lots of research supporting the efficacy of the kind of teaching that builds on the knowledge that kids have access to at home, especially kids who are underserved now," says Ken Zeichner, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Zeichner and others would like to see teacher preparation programs build in community experience, including home visits.

"Teachers don't see [visits] as part of their job," says Kathy Greminger, a social worker with the Ferguson-Florissant district in the St. Louis suburbs. Greminger frequently makes home visits in response to concerns about particular students, and she works closely with teachers.

Some teachers are afraid of parents or believe they would lose status by leaving their classrooms, Greminger and others say. Many teachers and some administrators believe they would not be welcome in homes.

But in fact, those who have tried home visits almost never find parents to be hostile. "Most parents would welcome" a visit, says Pat Dingsdale, the chair of the National PTA's Education Commission.

What To Do

Of course, the barriers to more home visits are not only psychological. Perhaps the highest hurdles are time and, of course, money.

Many principals and even more teachers who make home visits do so on their own time. When they are paid, it is often because a principal or a school improvement committee has found grant money. Rarely is pay or even encouragement available at the district level. Teacher contracts often prohibit administrators from requiring teachers to perform extra tasks like home visits. To lower these hurdles, experts suggest that administrators need to explore with teachers ways of making visits feasible.

There are different approaches to forging links with parents, and teachers must be able to chose among them, notes Lily Eskelsen, a Utah teacher who sits on the executive committee of the National Education Association. "You don't want to overwhelm yourself with visits to 30 kids," she says. "It would be a mistake to give teachers one more thing to do on a shoestring."

If teachers are nervous about home visits, experts say, their way may need to be smoothed by a liaison worker. Translators are a good idea where teachers speak a different home language from parents, and other parents from the neighborhood can make good partners for teachers on home visits.

Teachers' fears, especially those for their physical safety, must be taken seriously, supporters of home visits advise.

Many teachers and some administrators believe they would not be welcome in homes.

"I always tell teachers [that] if they have any concerns from their telephone conversation with parents or about the neighborhood, we just go together," says Robbie S. McNabb, the principal of Dommerich Elementary School in Maitland, Fla., a suburb of Orlando.

McNabb says that when hiring teachers, she looks for those who are at least open to the idea of home visits. "It's very important to me that they do home visits," she says. "I make it clear that I can't require it, but that it's wonderful for all of us." This year, the 16 teachers at Dommerich who made home visits in the weeks before school will be paid $160 apiece out of the Orange County district's elementary school budget.

The 'Welcome Wagon'

When at least a few faculty members are interested in home visits, but time and money are short, a school can design a very modest program. That's what happened at New Haven Elementary School, a few miles to the south of Lange Middle School in Columbia.

After reviewing the elementary school's program, the faculty decided New Haven needed to improve parent involvement. A committee of teachers, administrators, and parents hit on an idea quickly dubbed the "Welcome Wagon." Teams of two make brief, doorstep visits to welcome every new family.

About a half-dozen people are involved, and the teams typically include a teacher and a parent, but the school's nurse and secretary are also enthusiastic visitors. Parents are alerted by a postcard that the Welcome Wagon "will be visiting your area during the next two weeks," and they are given the option of scheduling an appointment.

One August evening, 1st grade teacher Trina Liebhart and school secretary Janell Tallmage mount the steps to a pink-and-white stuccoed trailer. "Is your mom here?" they ask 5-year-old Stephanie Slate-Martin, who is at the door bouncing with excitement.

Billie Jo Slate, her mother, beckons the women into the cozy, pastel living room. "You went to New Haven?" Tallmage asks after the hellos. Slate nods yes, adding, "and all my sisters." Then Liebhart remembers she's taught three of Stephanie's cousins and reels off their names.

Stephanie's father, Todd Martin, speaks up for the first and only time. Nodding toward the little girl, who is now perched on the edge of a chair hugging the family's Pomeranian, he says in a way that doesn't quite hide his pride: "She's all excited about school."

Stephanie offers to show them around her home: "Would you like a tour?" The visits have been running longer than usual and the parents don't urge it, so Tallmage politely declines. They tell the parents about Meet the Teacher Night the following week, and ask whether anybody has questions.

When they leave, Tallmage ruminates on the lives of the Slate girls. Then, she thinks of a practical point.

"If they're not home, we go ahead and leave the packet," she says. "But it's not the same."

PHOTOS: Principal Carole L. Kennedy hugs Jeremy Humphrey, one of her students at Lange Middle School, during a visit to the boy's home. Jeremy's mother, Brenda Weaver, used the visit to raise concerns about portable classrooms.

Kennedy goes over the school supply list with James Perry, whose son, Ryan, is a student at Lange. The principal always tries to bring information about the school on home visits.

Kennedy says goodbye to the Perrys after one of her many home visits this summer.

Carole L. Kennedy, the principal of Lange Middle School in Columbia, Mo., believes home visits are essential to increasing parent involvement. She shares a laugh with one of her students, Kate Kinder, during a visit this summer.
--Adam M. Rust

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