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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Making Connections Between Home and School: Parents Become Active Participants

Through a home-visit program, Sacramento, California, schools realize the many benefits of parent involvement.
By Roberta Furger

Home Visits: Engaging the Family in Their Children's Learning

Credit: Edutopia

Editor's Note: Since this article was written in 2002, Susan B. Anthony Elementary School has stopped sending its teachers on home visits.

Some called it a throwaway school. Others considered it a school in peril. As far as first-year principal Carol Sharp was concerned, the Susan B. Anthony Elementary School, in Sacramento, California, had lost touch with the community. The overwhelming majority of students were performing below grade level, suspensions had peaked at 140 the previous year, and parents -- perhaps the single most important factor in a student's success -- had become spectators in their child's education.

That was 1998. Today, the school has been transformed. Student achievement has skyrocketed, suspensions have been all but eliminated, and parents are respected partners, not outsiders.

"It's like a dream," says Sharp of the incredible changes that have taken place at the school and in its surrounding community. But it wasn't a dream. The changes, as Sharp and others are quick to note, have come about as the result of hours and hours of hard work on the part of students, educators, and parents. They're the result, Sharp adds, of a commitment to building relationships between home and school so that everyone -- parents, teachers, and students -- work together toward common goals.

A Common Language: Interpreters at school functions and a successful home-visit program have helped build communication at Susan B. Anthony Elementary School, where as many as twenty-one languages are spoken.

Credit: Edutopia

Breaking Down Barriers

Walk through the playground or step into a classroom at Susan B. Anthony and you'll see students from as many as twenty-one countries, many of whom speak languages other than English. (Sharp likens the school to what she calls a "mini United Nations.") Of the school's roughly 450 students, more than two-thirds are immigrants from countries in Southeast Asia, including Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Roughly 20 percent of the students are African American, and 12 percent are Hispanic. All live in poverty; 100 percent of the students receive free or reduced-priced lunches. The average parent has just a sixth-grade education.

"A lot of assumptions were made about why parents didn't come to school," says Sharp. "But in many cases, parents just needed to be asked. They needed to feel welcome."

Sandy Smith, former director of Sacramento Area Congregations Together (Sacramento ACT), a local community organization that began working with parents to identify needs and concerns, recalls some of the early meetings in which parents expressed their anger and frustration at having been shut out of the system. "They felt inadequate," she says. "They felt like they didn't belong at school. And they blamed themselves for their children's academic failures."

A Link to Learning: Improved test scores, increased attendance, and greater parent involvement are just a few of the changes attributed to home visits.

Credit: Edutopia

A Radical Idea

As parents, educators, and ACT staff members continued meeting, all recognized the considerable disconnect between home and school. And then, using a model developed by ACT parent leaders and staff, the teachers at Susan B. Anthony took a simple but radical step in the fall of 1998. With teachers at eight other low-performing schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District, the Susan B. Anthony staff began visiting the homes of students, going in pairs and bringing an interpreter or the school nurse when necessary. They spent time getting to know parents, seeing their students in their home environment, and they heard (often for the first time) of the hopes, dreams, and struggles of their families.

Teachers also used that initial home visit as an opportunity to share information with parents about a schoolwide restructuring effort designed to increase student achievement. "We told the community, 'This is a whole new ball game,'" recalls Sharp. "We let them know what we were doing to support their child and asked what we could do for them to support their family." Each home visit ended with an invitation to come to school to a celebration where Sharp and her staff would talk about a comprehensive plan for school improvement.

The impact of those first house calls was immediate and profound. Two months into the home-visit program, 600 people came to school for a potluck dinner and to hear about the school-improvement plan. It was the first of what would be many celebrations of the school's successes.

Home Schooling: Parents throughout Sacramento are discovering how to better help their children at home -- and how to advocate for their children at school.

Credit: Edutopia

Parents as Partners

Throughout the city, there were parents just like those at Susan B. Anthony who were at a loss as to how to help their children. In 1998, Jocelyn Graves counted herself among the disaffected. Her son Timothy was in fourth grade at Mark Hopkins Elementary School when she received word that he was reading at just a second-grade level.

"I was devastated," recalls Graves. "How could I not know that my child wasn't reading at grade level? I felt like a failure."

Graves went to a meeting at her school, not really expecting much of anything to change. But the more she and other parents talked about feeling uncomfortable on the school campus, of being intimidated and thinking they weren't educated enough to be full participants in their children's education, the more Graves knew it was time for a change. With the support of Smith and Sacramento ACT, Graves and other parents became champions for home visits.

Like their colleagues at Susan B. Anthony, Mark Hopkins teachers began visiting the homes of their students in fall 1998. Graves remembers the first time a teacher visited her home as though it were yesterday.

"The teacher showed me how to make sure my son was understanding what he was reading by asking questions or asking him to write something about a story," says Graves. As important, she adds, "I learned not to be afraid to ask a teacher questions or to admit that I don't understand something."

As her son has moved on to middle school and now high school, Graves continues to advocate for his educational needs. "I don't wait for a teacher to contact me. Now I call teachers and set up appointments when I have questions or need help."

Preparing for Success: Teacher training is an integral part of Sacramento's home-visit program, which has been expanded to more than 400 schools throughout the state.

Credit: Edutopia

Scaling Up

Throughout the 1998-99 school year, teachers in those first nine Sacramento schools made 3,000 home visits. The result was greater parent participation, fewer behavior problems, and continuous improvements on the state-mandated standardized tests.

The program's success wasn't lost on the school district -- or the State of California. Now, teachers in every school in the district participate in the voluntary program. Based on the success of the Sacramento effort, California offered $15 million in grants for both the 2000-01 and 2001-02 academic years to districts throughout the state interested in implementing a home-visit program.

Graves, for her part, has become an evangelist for the cause. She visits schools throughout California and the country to promote home visits as a means of building successful partnerships between parents and teachers and trains teachers who are preparing to embark on a home-visit program.

Her message is simple but profound: "We're all teachers. We all have to work together for our kids to achieve."

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

Comments (28)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jenna Peecher, Walden University's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After reading this article, I feel there is hope for teacher-parent communication, even at times it seems impossible. It would be beneficial for all educators to read about successes, such as Susan B. Anthony Elementary School. I admire the steps they have taken to involve parents.
The school I work for has a good number of parents and community members who are involved, so it's not quite as big as an issue for our district. However, there are always some parents who aren't taking the actions necessary to be involved in their students education. I know it's easy to become discouraged and settle for un-involved parents. I have learned from this article that a strong educator will not allow this. They will do whatever is necessary to get the parents to step in. I also believe it's very important to make the parents feel comfortable. I always try to create a warm, positive atmosphere for the parents. I have new hopes after reading about other schools and the steps they're taking to get all involved.

Emily's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Parent and community involvement is a major concern in my school. One of my biggest struggles is involving family and community in my students' learning. I teach in a very low income area and it seems that no matter how hard I try, the parents of my students do not wish to contribute to our classroom community. Even a simple task such as making sure their student is at school on time or helping them with their homework seems to be a struggle. Sometimes parent involvement seems to be out of my control; however, I hope to relay the importance of education and encourage parents to visit the classroom and become a part of their student's education. I have worked very hard to involve parents by having parent informational meetings and sending continuous notes home. Encouraging parents to be more involved in the classroom will make student learning more effective which in turn can make our jobs easier.

Jennifer (Walden U)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that many parents of school age children feel intimitated to come to school to either talk about a particular problem their child is having or to find out about something they don't understand themselves. The home visit program that Susan B. Anthony school started is one way to let families know that you are in their corner.

At my former school it took years to build a successful family partnership program. One of the fisrt steps taken was to hold PTA meetings in the language groups that made up the school. For us this meant Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, and English. The different language groups would place themselves throughout the library with a translator so that everyone understood what was happening at the meeting. This simple step truly brought families together in a new way. As years passed different programs were added: after school homework club (in native languages), after school sports, clubs and classes, parenting classes, English classes for parents, etc.

Change can happen in any school, but it takes time and commitment to the process.

Jean R, NJ , Walden University's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you; it is so sad to hear about the great lengths some teachers have to go through to reach out to the parents of their students. You would think the parents would show more of an interest or make time for their child's education. I am working full time, but I would drop everything if there was a problem with my child in school. It is our job as educators to do whatever it takes to get through to a parent, but is disheartening when you have a parent that does not respond to notes, emails, phone calls, etc..Perhaps a home visit would be a final solution, as long as safety wasn't an issue. You seem to be very dedicated and motivated to reach all of your students. Keep up the good work!

Jean R, NJ Walden University's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think parental involvement is so important to have, and makes things so much easier when you have it. It was very impressive to read about the dramatic increase in parental involvement just from having a home visit with the teacher. The teacher took extreme measures to reach out to the family and get to know them personally. The parents could have formed a relationship with the teacher by coming in to the school, volunteering, attending school activities, and parent conferencing/ open house, without having the teacher go so out of her/his way to contact them. These really are the parents' responsibilities and the parents should want to be a part of their child's education, regardless of their own education, or personal feelings of inferiority. A parent must let their child know the importance of a good education, and if the parents are not showing interest in their child's, what message is that sending to their child?

Elaine Gold's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm not sure this is the right place for my situation, but I don't know where to go.

I'm taking a CDES course now for children and youth. One of the activies I need to turn in is a Parent Meeting flyer but detailed.
How I would get the parents to come. What the subject would be, information given, speaker and qualifications, etc. Refreshments, door prizes.

How do I do this?

I'm think along the lines of math and what parents can do to help their kids at home to expand concepts.

Help!

Elaine

Vivian Romani's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I try to be dedicated because at times we as teachers show these children more attention than their own parents. It must feel terrible to know you are not your parent's first priority. I,like you, would drop anything for my sons. My sons know without a doubt that I would stop the world for them. My students do not have that security. I try to become a conduit between them and their parents so they can feel some of that security as well.

Lu Xiong's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think in the article, many of these parents speak limited or no English. Many of them felt "inadequate" and therefore, were not involved. I currently have a student now whose parents are rarely involved and yet, they have five children at the school. Because I speak her language and made a call phone, it turned out that she does want to be involved but because she did not speak English and her children are unable to explain to her in their native language as well as translate what she wants to say into English, she just stayed away. However, by contacting her, she made it very clear that she would do what ever is necessary in order to help her children, even if it meant attending PTC meetings, where all is in English. I would then have to translate for her. I think many parents, including those at Susan B. Anthony school feel this way.

That does not go to say ALL parents are this way. I have parents whose children would love for their parents to participate and attend Back to School night, conferences or chaperone field trips. However, in order to keep their homes or support their children, they need to work. Working and communicating one hour to and from their work takes away many opportunities for these parents and their children to "bond". There are those parents who I have never met and tried making home visits. Many times, these parents are not home because they are at work. Their children are in day care and not picked up until 8 p.m., only to be dropped off at 8 a.m. the next morning for school.

I find it very difficult to find ways to involve these parents. As much as I have tried to find different ways to reach out to these parents, I usually receive no response. If you know of ways to have them involved, do let me know!

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Elaine-

We just had a very successful family math night at my school. We sent home a flyer advertising the event (date, time, what to expect, etc.)in multiple languages. We always involve food at these evenings, usually pizza and water. On the flyer there is a RSVP that asks for family name and # of people attending, so that we know how much food to order (2 slices per person).

For the event we had story problems (in our main laguages) set up on the tables while the families were eating (3 sheets stapled on the sides to make a triangle, 2-3 problems per side. By stapling this way they will stand up). The tables are coverd with butcher paper so that they can work on the problems while eating.

After dinner families move to tables that are set up according to grade levels, so that students can teach parents math games from our curriculum (TERC or Investigations). To accomodate traslators we set up the language groups together.

At the end of the evening families get to take home a packet of math games with a deck of cards (we got used ones for free from the casinos in the area).

Our door prizes were games that involved math, such as Hi-Ho Cherry-O, Uno, Phase 10, etc.

Hope this helps!

Laurette's picture

I know first hand why the importance for parents to be involved in their child's education. the school I work at is a school for the Deaf, and All of our student's are special needs, and the parents don't come to IEP meetings nor do they come for parent conferences. Being a parent of a former student of the school, I became an investor in my daughter education. I feel these parents rely on us teachers to do everything for their child.

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