Can Home Visits By Teachers Improve Education?

In St. Louis, more than 30 schools annually send teachers on home visits. This new wave seeks to narrow the teacher-parent divide while providing glimpses at the factors that shape student learning before and after the school bells ring, and unlike home visit programs that focus on truants and troublemakers, or efforts aimed exclusively at early childhood.

"I wish they had this when I had children in school," said Elmira Warren, a teacher's aide at Clay Elementary School who has made home visits to her students and their parents. "I was fearful of what the teachers thought, and of not knowing enough."

With active programs in Washington, Denver, Seattle and St. Paul, Minn, the nonprofit HOME WORKS! program is modeled after one in Sacramento, Calif., that over the past decade has since spread to more than 300 schools in 13 states. Citing preliminary research of the newer program by the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a series of external reviews in Sacramento over the past decade, program leaders say that participation leads to better attendance, higher test scores, greater parental involvement and fewer suspensions and expulsions. Teachers are paid for their time but participation is voluntary.

"We've figured out a way for people to sit down outside the regular school and have the most important conversation that needs to happen," said Carrie Rose, executive director of the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project in the California capital.

Begun in 1999 as a faith-based community effort, the K-12 program quickly found support not only in the Sacramento school district but also with local teachers unions. Citing a "critical mass of research evidence" connecting high student achievement with involved parents, the National Education Association has also endorsed teacher home visits.

According to Alan Scher Zagier of Associated Press, the Missouri program, which began in St. Louis but now includes several schools 120 miles away in the college town of Columbia, follows a template common to the other efforts. At least half of the participating schools teachers must agree upon involvement and to ensure safety, educators work in pairs. Foundation grants by nonprofit supporters such as the Flamboyan Foundation, which paid for the program in the District of Columbia, cover program costs. Rose estimated the program cost at $10,000 annually for elementary schools, and $15,000 to $20,000 for high schools.

Karen Kalish, a St. Louis philanthropist who founded HOME WORKS! in 2006 said that in Missouri, the first teacher visit comes in late summer, with the second session in the fall. While the follow-up session focuses on academics, the initial meeting is all about building a rapport.

"They go in as listeners and learners the first time," she said. "Just to get (parents) to start talking, to build their relationship"

An invitation to continue the conversation at school over a communal meal follows each session. The school provides childcare and transport for busy parents who can't find the time or energy for such visits. Teachers must spend at least 30 minutes on the first visit and 45 minutes the second time, though often those minimums are exceeded.

"We want to do whatever we can to get them to come to school," Kalish said. "Something happens when parents see their kids' school for the first time."

Additionally, the program also fosters parental accountability rather than a reliance on schools to essentially serve as surrogate parents for six or seven hours each day according to Kalish. She hopes to build enough momentum to take the effort statewide despite the Missouri program and affiliated efforts nationwide remain relatively small. She also envisions a broader effort that would elevate teacher home visits alongside such programs as Teach for America or Parents as Teachers, which focuses on increasing child-rearing skills through home visits for newborns and toddlers.

"We've got the secret sauce," Kalish said. "We know what works."

12 30, 2013
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