In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, 90% of the children at Hobgood Elementary School are from low-income households, and principal Tammy Garrett says this creates a challenge. Blake Farmer, writing for NPR-Ed, says Garrett believes that if a teacher only knows middle class families, they may not understand why their students are sometimes tired or do not have their homework completed.
In order to get a better understanding of their students, and to get teachers out of their comfort zones, Garrett began boarding her teachers onto school buses to visit the neighborhoods and apartment complexes where Hobgood students live. Along the way, the bus driver takes to the intercom to explain that he picks up 50 children at one complex every morning, and teachers get ready to knock on students' doors unannounced.
In some cases, polite pleasantries are exchanged, but other meetings actually yield conversations with substance, often with parents who do not make it to their child's school very often.
"I don't have a car. I can't drive because my back got broken in two places," she tells a trio of teachers standing in her doorway. "I'm a mom. I can't be there with all of them all the time," says Jennifer Mathis who has one child at Hobgood.
In the past, a home visit from a teacher only meant trouble, but now home visits are used to encourage parental involvement. The National Education Association thinks visits are an excellent idea, and a school district in Massachusetts has even provided teachers with extra pay for the added work and overtime. Charter schools in Washington, D.C., have used home visits to engage parents, and D.C. traditional schools are trying out the idea as well.
"If a kid doesn't have a place to sleep or they have to share the couch with their siblings at night and there are nine kids with one bedroom or two bedrooms, it's important for them to see that — not to be sympathetic," she says. "It's to empower the teachers to change the lives of the kids."
Albemarle County, Virginia's Woodbrook Elementary School students got surprise visits from their teachers, too. Principal Lisa Molinaro says the visits strengthen the partnership between home and school, which is critical to a student's success, writes Courteney Stuart, reporting for The Charlottesville Newsplex. She started the home visits last year and focused on low-income families and families with children who speak English as a second language.
Woodbrook's ESL teacher Elizabeth Coppolino says the visits are powerful, especially for the families of the students she teaches. Fourth grader Emma Boyd noted it was helpful to meet her new teacher before the first day of school.
"It's a way that we show we care and help to connect with our families before they come through the door," said Coppolino.
In Kentucky, the Newport Middle School Cafeteria buzzed earlier this month when 200 teachers gathered for a day-long trek around the city to visit students in their homes. This was the third year the visitation had taken place, and teachers were excited about their mission to visit 1,600-plus students, reports Patricia A. Scheyer of The River City News.
The teachers are convinced that the visits establish a relationship and set a tone for the rest of the year. The teachers walk in teams of two, briefly visiting and leaving a door hanger on the knob, printed in English and Spanish, if no one is available.
Newport Superintendent Kelly Middleton learned of the home visit system when he was a principal in another county and carried it with him when he went to Mason County. There, the district won a nationwide Magna award in 2008 for the home visit idea. He says the insights and information gathered from the visits help teachers know their students and help students realize that their teachers care.