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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

Lindsey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I read this article it hit close to home. We were actually talking yesterday in our staff meeting about ways we can bring our parents into our builing because we feel like we are disconnected. I am a kindergarten teacher and we do home visits to our students homes. You learn a lot about your students by visiting them in their home. Our dimographics are basically the same as those mentioned in this article. I am actually going to print this article off and take it to my builing principle to see if she thinks these home visits school-wide are a possibility or not. We are also in school improvement year 4 so we are looking for anything to help us improve.

Katie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that more schools should partake in a Home Visit Program. The school that I used to work at did something similar to this and it really did make a difference in the school atmosphere. Home visits weren't mandated, but the group of teachers we had were so enthusiastic and caring that most of the wanted to make an extra step to bond with the children and their parents. A lot of our teachers also took children out on Friday nights as a special treat, or out to pizza on their birthday. For special events our principal even paid (out of pocket) to bus in families who did't have their own transpportation. I wish more teachers would be willing to give just a bit more of their time; if they knew the benefits that came with that investment our schools and children would be a whole lot better.

Katie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I know exactly how you feel Ashley. My first year as a teacher was very difficult. Learning how to balance all of the responsibilities of being a new teacher, dealing with sometimes difficult children, meeting the standards, and dealing with parents is all very overwhelming. It does get easier (even next semester will seem easier). My advice is to be involved with your children and their parents. Spending time with the children and getting to know the parents really made an impact on the whole class (and a lasting imapact on me). By the end of my first school year parents were inviting me over to their home for dinner, to church, and calling me to ask questions. I knew that they trusted and respected me, and they knew how much I cared! Good luck to you for the next six months.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One way my school tries to make a positive connection is to give students "positive" office referrals. These are given to students doing good deeds in the classroom. It also gives the teacher and assistant principal a chance to contact the parents and let them know the positive things their child is doing.

Meghan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also come from a very poor district where the parents are very hard workers and are usually working all day and therefore it is very difficult to get in touch with them. Between jobs and phones being shut off I feel the hardship of getting parents involved in their childs education. It is the role of the teacher to reach out to the parents in the beginning.
Luckily I was able to do that with most of my parents. But finally today after 5 months I had a parent in for a conference. I on one occasion made a home visit to the parent and I could tell that she was comfortable. We have a parent liason that helps make contacts. I just wonder how the teacher and school makes it comfortable for the parents, when entering their homes.
Our school also has difficulty attracting parents to after school programs and PTA.

Alyssa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel as though making connections between home and school is KEY to having successful students. It has been such a challenge for me to make connections with some of my students' parents. However, I know that if we can work as a team, we are more likely to see success in the classroom as well as in life.

Robert Ritter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree that the parents have to be involved not only in their child's life but what goes on with them in school. These days a lot of parents are not involved in their kids studies because their to busy with whatever so kids are lazy and are satisfied with failure or being average. I'm lucky because I'm in the elementary level so the parents are very involved and it shows with their kids. For instance, one first grader was upset that she wasn't very good at jump roping. Her mother calls and we explain the whole program and what she could do to help her daughter. A week later her daughter made major improvements and everyone was happy. Our parents are to involved at times but I guess it's better than not at all.

Robert Ritter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If you care enough about your kids or a program your running that needs parents or students, then you will find a way to get them. Teachers want to make a difference in students lives but nobody said it would be easy.

Vivian Romani, NYC, Walden University's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find it very disheartening as both a parent and an educator that we have to entice parents to be involved and interested in their own children. I understand that the era we live in is fast paced and most children either live with one parent or both parents must work to support the family. However, have we as a society become so overwhelmed that we do not have the desire or energy to help our own children? Let's face it children are work. They don't come with owner's manuals and most times they do not conform or perform the way we want when we want them to. Instead of finding ways to motivate the children, parents throw their hands up and give up.
I won't accept this in my classroom. I let parents know from our orientation in September that they are my partner. Most accept their role willingly. I am relentless with the others. I do not let them off the hook. I write, call, email, and embarrass them into working with me and their kids. In my experience, both the student and parent thank me in the end. It is very hard to be that forward, however, I feel the responsibility to advocate for my student is worth the effort.

Jenna Walden University's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! This was a great article and I think it's important for all educators to read about such successes, as that of Susan B. Anthony Elementary School. Often times, as teachers, we do get discouraged with parent involvment, and I personally know that's easy to do. But, this article put a new light on this topic. It is our job to do whatever necessary to reach parents. Our school doesn't participate in home visits, but I did find it very interesting and can see how it might be succesful. We have a good number of parents and community members who are involved, so it's not as big of an issue for our district as it is for some. I do think, though, that we can always improve on getting the parents involved. I do think it's so important to make sure the parents feel comfortable and open. I always try to create a warm, positive atmosphere. If you let the parents know you really care about their children, obviously, they will be more willing to step in. I can improve though, dealing with parents who aren't as invovled. Instead of settling for lack of involvement from some, I need to try harder and attempt different strategies to involve each and every parent.

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