Families & the Community

House Calls

By Bess Keller — September 03, 1997 16 min read

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.

No one knows how many teachers or principals make home visits—although the number is probably on the rise.

At another stop, a parent hesitantly mentions a story she’s heard that Kennedy turned a deaf ear to parents who were unhappy about the use of portable classrooms for Lange’s 7th graders. Kennedy takes the opportunity to dispel the rumor, explaining that after hearing parent concerns, she decided that only 6th graders would occupy the trailers.

Later she sums up: “If people get to know you, they say: ‘I can’t believe Carole wouldn’t work with us on that. Has anybody talked with her?’”

A Revelation

Home visits are not just for veterans like Carole Kennedy.

Tim Messenger, a third-year teacher in Flint, Mich., stumbled onto the technique during his rookie year. One day, he recalls, the counselor at Scott Elementary School had to take one of Messenger’s 1st graders home. The child had been disruptive. On the spur of the moment, the young teacher decided to tag along. “I had just never thought of going to a child’s home,” he recalls, but the idea intrigued him.

And the visit itself was nothing short of a revelation. When Messenger met the child’s father that day, he seemed unconcerned with his son’s outburst, as if the child had only done what was natural. “Right away, it changed the way I dealt with that student,” Messenger says. “He had no connection with anything in school because no one was helping him to connect to anything.”

Messenger not only saw the child in a new light, he came away with valuable information: The father was proudly American Indian. “I could pull that into our conversation in class, give my student some glory he hadn’t had before. If I hadn’t been to his home, I wouldn’t have appreciated the role that played, that he held it dear to his heart.”

The child is a behavior problem, still violent, Messenger acknowledges. But--and this can be important to a child for whom school is unrelentingly negative--the boy now regards Messenger as an ally. “The more connections you have with a child, the more credibility you have, the more they are willing to give in return.”

Home Territory

Inspired by that visit, Messenger went to see all 19 of his 1st graders during the first few weeks of school last year. To his astonishment, at the school’s open house just after he finished, a parent or a guardian showed up for each youngster. And the payoff continued. Messenger’s class won four top prizes for parent participation at Scott last year.

Granted, Scott Elementary has also benefited from the Flint Community School District’s program to reduce class size--a change that the teacher says helped him have the time to visit 19 families. But it’s also true that Messenger got his results in a struggling Rust Belt city school where two-thirds of the families are African-American and many have low incomes--the kind of population that often lags behind the white middle class. Though most of his students are black, Messenger is white.

“When we go to the home, I think the message is: ‘We really care about your children and we need your help.’ ”

Carole L. Kennedy
Lange Middle School

Scott’s principal, Sally Creech, says that while she was pleased by Messenger’s success, she wasn’t surprised. As a young teacher in early-childhood programs, she says, “I spent a lot of time in homes, and I was well aware of the impact of meeting parents on their own territory.”

Despite experiences like Messenger’s, home visits remain a rarity. Once, they were probably less uncommon and less necessary. Carole Kennedy remembers when her high school home economics teacher came to her family’s home in tiny Mendon, Mo., to evaluate a project. Kennedy had chosen, as her assignment, to redecorate her bedroom.

On the Rise

In that small-town past, school and home were interlaced because many people knew each other in more than one role--teachers were neighbors, fellow members of the choir, kin. But these days, home visits are a way of weaving a social fabric that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

No one knows how many teachers or principals make home visits--although the number is probably on the rise. What research there is on the topic looks mostly at programs for disadvantaged preschoolers, where the important role of parents in their children’s success has been recognized since the beginning of Head Start 30 years ago.

In the school setting, people hired specifically to make contact with families--sometimes social workers, sometimes people with less formal training--make the bulk of home visits. For example:

  • To boost parent involvement, the Houston Independent School District this year launched a program that puts “parent educators” in 30 of its schools. The workers, who are chosen for their potential rapport with parents, spend the morning giving parenting workshops and much of the afternoon making home visits.
  • Missouri pays for outreach workers in schools, the backbone of its Caring Communities program. One aim of the $30 million initiative is to help families better care for their children, and Caring Communities specialists make frequent home visits to that end.
  • In Talbot County, Md., an after-school program for middle schoolers at risk of dropping out begins with a home visit from the coordinator or his assistant.

“Generally it’s not teachers and administrators who pay the home visits, it’s people who are hired as home-school liaisons,” says Anne T. Henderson, an expert on parent involvement at the Washington office of the Center for Law and Education, a nonprofit advocacy group. “If it’s done well, those people are from the community and share the culture and the background of the people they are visiting.”

Not Either/Or

But experts maintain that the question of who visits should not be a matter of either/or. Visits from family-liaison workers don’t replace those from principals and teachers. Rather, the schools that most need such workers are also the ones likely to most benefit from the extra outreach of faculty members. Teachers and principals might not be the best qualified to grasp family needs, but they do uniquely define the work of the school.

Then, too, as Tim Messenger discovered, visits not only open up lines of communication with parents, they also provide teachers and administrators with valuable information about their students. Sometimes the information is specific to a family; often it is cultural.

“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.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 03, 1997 edition of Education Week as House Calls


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