Barbréa Finney has something to tell the two teachers who have settled into her living room couch.

Finney, 70, has been fostering children in the Detroit area for 40-plus years and she’s probably welcomed more than 50 boys and girls into her home. But the four girls, ages 6 to 11, living with her now are her adoptive daughters. Last year, after decades of drug addiction and domestic violence, their biological mother was stabbed to death by their father.

As Judge Judy rules on the television nearby, Finney dabs at her eyes, and then tells sixth-grade teacher DeAnn Covert, “The girls took it real hard… and sometimes, when they’re thinking back, there are days when they get sad. They loved their mother and she was a nice, nice woman.”

This is not the typical parent-teacher conference, conducted in a classroom with test scores or discipline reports passed across a table, and another parent waiting nearby for her 10 minutes. Instead this reciprocal conversation, shared in a cozy home with a hand-penciled portrait of Barack Obama on the walls, is part of a coordinated home-visit program. Finney’s visitors are from Romulus Middle School, a NEA Priority School on the outskirts of Detroit, and they have trained with the national Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

Parent, teacher home visits on Monday, Oct. 13, 2014.

“With all of the children I’ve had, I’ve never before had a teacher come to my home,” said Finney. “When she called me, I was like, ‘Okay, this is different. This is nice!’”

It’s more than nice, actually. A home-visit program like Romulus’ can build meaningful parent-teacher partnerships — the kind of family engagement that research has shown to boost school attendance and willingness to do homework, reduce discipline problems and dropout rates, and raise student achievement and social outcomes. It also can end the cycle of parent-teacher blame, especially in communities where children have traditionally underachieved, by building trust between teachers and parents.

This is about identifying parents and teachers as “co-educators,” who share respective knowledge about that student. It’s about helping teachers become culturally aware and parents seriously involved in their child’s education.

This isn’t “parent involvement,” in the form of Valentine’s Day parties, or “parent communication,” in the form of one-way emails. Rather, this is about identifying parents and teachers as “co-educators,” who share respective knowledge about that student. It’s about helping teachers become culturally aware and parents seriously involved in their child’s education.

When Romulus teacher Kathleen Forrest sits down at another mother’s dining-room table, she says simply, “The purpose of this visit is to build a relationship…”

Parent, teacher home visits on Monday, Oct. 13, 2014.

Teacher DeAnn Covert (middle) and Romulus Education Association President Shawn Shivnen (right) visit Barbréa Finney at her home.

Union-led Collaboration

Across the U.S., the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project (PTHVP) trained nearly 5,000 teachers in 2014. Its partners include NEA Priority Schools in Alabama, California, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon, and Washington State; and also two of the NEA Foundation’s “Closing the Achievement Gaps Initiative” sites: Seattle and Springfield, Massachusetts.

Whenever I’ve had powerful change in a student, whether it’s academic or social, it’s because I’ve worked hand in hand with a parent.

“NEA is the place where people are investing most effectively,” said Carrie Rose, PTHVP executive director — and that includes NEA Priority Schools, where NEA has paid for PTHVP training to help local educators in their broad efforts to build community partnerships, improve teacher quality, and transform their low-achieving schools into the schools that every child deserves.

“We realized early on that stronger relationships with families and communities would be key to transforming some of our most struggling schools, so we made the investment,” said Andrea Prejean, Director of NEA’s Priority Schools. “The partnership with THVP just made sense.”

“This is where it starts, folks,” said Romulus fifth-grade teacher Julie Hirchert, who helped kick-start Romulus’ home-visit program three years ago. “This is the foundation for everything you want to do, as a teacher… Whenever I’ve had powerful change in a student, whether it’s academic or social, it’s because I’ve worked hand in hand with a parent.”

And it’s not just anecdotal evidence. Studies also support Hirchert’s findings.

  • In Sacramento, a three-year study found that teacher home-visits corresponded to a 6.5 percentage point gain in reading tests and 9.8 in math, plus improved graduation rates.
  • In Mason County, Kentucky, after seven years of home visits, researchers found the district had moved from 126th to 30th on statewide tests, and that discipline referrals had reduced significantly.
  • And, in Maplewood Richmond Heights, Missouri, discipline referrals declined by 45 percent and parent involvement improved by 20 percent. Not surprisingly, student achievement followed.

What is a Home Visit?

Leave your paper and pencil in the car. When you walk through that front door, it’s just you. Actually, it’s not just you. Bring a partner. And both of you must be trained and paid for your time.

These are the shared traits of all home-visit programs, said Rose. Also, and this is important: Focus the conversation on building trust and relationships. This is not the time to talk about test scores or bring up that cafeteria fight. Ask parents about their “hopes and dreams” for their children, and share your own hopes and dreams for your students.

Teachers Kathleen Forest and DeAnn Covert (right) meet with a parent and her child.

Teachers Kathleen Forest and DeAnn Covert (right) meet with a parent and her child.

Erica wants to be a chef. Davvion’s mom won’t settle for anything else than a college degree. And Michael’s parents want to raise a “man of integrity.” “To ask parents about their hopes and dreams, and to know that it might be the first time they’ve been asked that question and that you’re getting that thought process started… it’s very powerful,” said Nick Faber, vice president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, a joint NEA-AFT affiliate.

Four years ago in St. Paul, after an NEA grant provided training, about six teachers visited 15 homes. This year, “it looks like we’ll reach 1,000,” said Faber.

But the most impressive number in St. Paul is this one: $75,000. That’s how much the district must set aside to pay teachers for home visits, according to their collectively bargained contract. (It’s $50 per visit.) Teachers asked the union’s bargaining team to put the program into their contract, forcing administrators to commit to the program. “We really wanted to be able to say that we, as a union, are stepping up to get our members out into the community to better understand our students, especially our students of color, so that we can start to break down some of the disparities in academic achievement and behavior,” said Faber.

Ninety percent of the St. Paul visits “have been to black and brown families,” he said, and many are poor or working-class. Meanwhile, 90 percent of the visiting teachers are White. With those cultural and socio-economic differences in mind, home visits can be a powerful tool. In a recent program evaluation, nearly eight out of 10 St. Paul home-visit teachers said it “changed assumptions they had about parents.”

After You Say Good-bye

In both St. Paul and Romulus, teachers usually conclude a home visit with an invitation — “Please come to school for…” And parents do. “If I invite them, they always come,” said Romulus’ Forrest, who coordinates a quarterly academic-focused Parent University.

More immediately, teachers return to school with great information. They have a better understanding of a child’s behavior, and more appreciation of how a child’s home environment may be related to school performance.

“When you have a kid walk into class, you just see the kid,” said Hirchert. But after a home visit, when that student walks into class “you see his aunt, his uncle, the drawing pad that he brought to share with you — it’s a whole picture. I get immeasurable data about what inspires them and motivates them.”

Before the Romulus teachers sat down on Finney’s couch, they had no idea of the previous trauma in the girls’ lives. It is information that is very valuable to them. “As I teacher I can now say to this mother, ‘I see your daughter withdrawing… Is it about that time of year?’ And it’s something this mother and I can talk about, and work together on,” said DeAnn Covert, who reached across the couch to Finney and told her, “I am blessed to be in your home.”

When the conversation turns to the “hopes and dreams” of the four girls, Finney tells Covert, “I want these girls to go to college.”

From around the corner, a small voice says, “I want to be a teacher.”