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.”

  • Sharon Anghilante

    I taught Vocational Home Economics, in Ohio starting over forty years ago. Some if our courses had a home project component for additional credit. It was part of my job to complete a home visit to guarantee the student did the project and to visit with the family. Some if my home visits provided me with the most profound, eye-opening experiences of my career. One example, students were complaining that another student smelled, could I do something about it….the family lived in the basement of a house the father was building when he died. It was hard to neutralize the mildew smelll under those circumstances. As the author reported, the visits empower the teacher and the student.

  • Charles P Tommasulo LMSW

    Outstanding information – as a social service agency executive director I found the article most interesting and exciting how NEA/ AFT unions have be in the leadership in improving educational outcomes. Just a great article!!

  • Jerry Doctor

    Didn’t this originally appear in The Onion?

  • Antonio Browning

    I read the article with a unique interest as I taught in Mason County, one of the schools cited as proof of home visit effectiveness, during the period cited. When I started at Mason County a few teachers were visiting students most at-risk on their own. No pay, no thanks needed we just did what teachers have done thousands of time over decades.
    Then the district leadership made the visits mandatory to every student. We were required to document every visit. If contact could not be made we were required multiple attempts and we had a principal to sign off that we tried. Needless to say, it began to carry a negative tone and some began to question the reasoning behind visiting every student regardless. The administration wrote a book on how great this new idea was as the teachers made multiple attempts and spent well over 40 hours completing all the predatory work such as appointment making, filling bags with school information and even discussing test scores with parents. We were paid 150.00 for all of our efforts.
    To remotely connect visits to increase in scores is disingenuous at best and a myth at worse.
    If our school scores went down we would be degraded in front of our colleagues. One instance, the testing administrator met every teacher in our middle school, I was there, and took his jacket off and spoke to us as if we were not professionals but carpetbaggers. People left the meeting with some in tears and some completely silent.
    Teachers were working under immense stress and in fear. Some in the middle school staff began to question the district administration and almost entire teams of new young teachers were terminated. When they were fired, during a school day, counsellors were stationed in the hallway not to comfort the young teachers but to ensure they did not speak to anyone.
    The instances of administrative bullying were many and the results you quote are because of good hard working teachers.
    Please as educators provide a source of these results as policy will be made on the back on an article by a large educator union. I can assure you, there is no data to support that home visits in Mason County caused any score increases, let alone the ones stated above.
    By the way, Mason County no longer uses home visits. Investigate to determine why then report to teachers the entire story. I am available anytime. You have my contact information.

  • Barb Fowler

    After we had planned visits (by appointment) initiated by some programs in my old district, most home visitations stopped. Why? Safety of our teachers. Even having two teachers visiting at a time, it was deemed too dangerous. We had attempted assaults by boyfriends of the moms. Tires slashed for taking up a parking space. Parents who disappeared after welcoming the teachers in, leaving them to “babysit” for students and younger siblings for hours. Walking into working meth labs. Being greeted by naked adults at the front door, and worse.

    We don’t really need a home visit to know that many, many of our students live in deplorable conditions. We continued to make a safe haven for them at school.

  • Katleen Mele

    As a child school was my safe haven. I could be who I wanted to be at school…an A student. My parents were never involved in my school or homework. In 5th grade my teacher came to visit before the school year started. I was embarrassed by my home & my parents. My secret was out. My teacher was very critical of me. I couldn’t charm her. She knew who I really was. I lived in a house with old furniture, little food & disinterested parents. It was my worst year. I’m a retired teacher. I always valued that children might need a space between home & school. I worked with parents while valuing the child’s individual space. Just because this plan sounds good to us as adults doesn’t’ mean it’s always good for the child.

  • Gene Rick

    I retired 4 years ago, after a 32 year teaching career. During my time in that role, I often did home visits for a variety of reasons, but only after careful analysis of whether the visits were safe, appropriate, and necessary. The visits were generally helpful and well-received, because they were specifically used to reach out and directly assist families. Rather than following a required template, I adapted the visit’s format to specifically address the student’s and family’s needs. For example, if the child was home-bound due to a medical issue, I would bring the work they had missed and help them understand the concepts required to complete it. If the parents couldn’t make it to parent-teacher conferences, due to work schedules or transportation problems, I would turn it into a family conference that included the student. I even stopped by to collaboratively deal with disciplinary issues, on a few occasions, rather than immediately involving administrators or taking a punitive approach. Parents overwhelmingly appreciated that I made the effort to respectfully collaborate with them, on behalf of their child’s best interests. Most visits took place around the kitchen table, with a complimentary cup of coffee in hand. After such visits, I noticed that parents and students regarded me as their ally and were more likely to reach out to me for help. Student efforts and parental follow-through both increased, as well. Does such success justify extending this practice to every student? I think not. In fact, I think doing so would be counterproductive. The fact that this is being forced upon teachers, families, and students is symptomatic of the one-size-fits-all formula that is strangling true progress in educational reform. Imposing it across the board takes away teacher discretion, which is certainly a key skill for effective teaching. This practice is not universally appropriate; treating it as such invites problems and diminished effectiveness.