Five years ago, I was trained by the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project, based in Sacramento, California, whose model is used by educators across the country. Home visits are voluntary and prearranged. School staff are trained; they go out in pairs and are compensated for their time. Students are not targeted for visits because of grades or disciplinary issues. Among family engagement strategies, home visits are recognized for their high impact on student success.
During the half-hour visit, we always ask parents about their dreams for their children. Answers vary: “I want my son to have the opportunities my parents couldn’t give me.” “I want my daughter to make something of herself, to be somebody.”
On one occasion, we weren’t prepared for the answer: “I hope she can stay in this country long enough to get an education.” Lindy had an upcoming immigration hearing, and her dad didn’t know whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would deport her or not.
All of my students are immigrant teens. I don’t ask about their documents, thanks to a 1982 Supreme Court decision which guarantees equal access to education regardless of immigration status. But I do read my students’ academic histories. If I see three weeks in Arizona or Texas, I know they spent some time in a detention facility after an arduous journey through Mexico. I know they face a future full of court dates and unknowns.
Lindy had just arrived from Guatemala. She and her dad sat us down in their austere apartment on a rainy afternoon when he didn’t have to work at a distant construction site. He was the first father to tell us that his hope was avoiding deportation. I wondered how this fear affected Lindy’s schoolwork. How could she focus on reviewing vocabulary or organizing her notebook if she worried that ICE would knock on the door at dawn?
Days before her court date, Lindy told me that her dad couldn’t go with her. “Do I need a lawyer?” she asked. I struggled with this: a 17-year-old confronting ICE alone in a language she didn’t speak well. Fortunately, I have a Central American co-worker who had crossed the border herself years ago. Ms. Perez picked up the phone, and soon Lindy was talking with someone at a local nonprofit who agreed to accompany her to the hearing.
Suppose I hadn’t gone to Lindy’s home, met her dad, and learned of their fears. Without the home visit, would Lindy have trusted me enough to mention the hearing? Would she have gone alone? Home visits are designed to build a relationship between families and educators that impacts classroom learning. As we sit in their living rooms, families begin to believe we will treat them respectfully, and educators begin to shed our preconceptions. A relationship develops that can help students confront some very real obstacles to their academic progress.
Be Flexible About Where and Even Who You’ll Meet
Home visits don’t have to happen at home or even with parents. A library may be a good alternative to a crowded apartment, and a sibling may have custody of a student whose parents remain in El Salvador. Mauricio hesitated when we called to set up a visit for his younger brother Vicente, so we met at a nearby McDonald’s. We soon realized that this visit was about Mauricio, not Vicente. Mauricio had just broken up with his girlfriend, so the two brothers were sleeping on couches in a friend’s living room -- Vicente had left the insecurity of El Salvador for the instability of his brother’s life.
Like many other students with limited prior education, Vicente’s initial interest in high school waned. His buddies passed my pre-algebra class, but Vicente couldn’t remember how to solve two-step equations. A year later he was passing many of his math objectives but was often absent.
Every visit reveals another assumption from my own middle-class experience that accompanies me to school. I wondered how Lindy’s dad could leave her alone in front of an immigration judge, while I admired her bravery in going. I shook my head at Mauricio’s chaos but grudgingly respected him for devising a plan B for his brother. The last time I tried to call Mauricio, none of the phone numbers worked. And then Vicente handed me a 3x5 card with a new number: “In case you ever want to call….”
Home visits transform the way we look at ourselves and our students. Building trust with families is a first crucial step in tackling some of the obstacles in our students’ paths toward graduation.