Jonathan Raymond

Jonathan Raymond

This has been back-to-school night season, and in auditoriums across California, too often the seats that are left empty are for the parents and guardians of children whom the school rarely sees.

This phenomenon should set off alarms at a time when the Local Control Funding Formula and Local Control Accountability Plans put parents, families and communities at the center; but is it?

When the majority of California public school families live at or below the federal poverty level, and with parents working two or three jobs just to make ends meet, why do most schools still require parents to “take the first step”?

As Sacramento County Teacher of the Year Stephanie Smith recalls: “We ask them to come to back-to-school nights and teacher conferences without having tried to understand their reality. What if we, educators, took the first step? It’s time for school districts to rethink the approach of inviting parents into a prescribed time period and place and instead reach families and parents where they are.”

As a former superintendent of a large urban school district, I’ve seen how family engagement can transform the learning environment in schools, add to the professional growth of teachers and dramatically improve students’ academic and social development.

And the research backs this up. A U.S. Department of Education study, “Dual Capacity Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships,” found that to be “high impact,” engagement activities must build relationships, increase skills in both educators and families, and be linked to student learning.

Building a relationship of trust between schools and parents with clear communication and shared goals for success is critical and takes time. But one model highlighted in the report, and pioneered in my former Sacramento school district, is surprisingly inexpensive and simple to implement: The Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project.

Based on community organizing principles, this effort focuses on building relationships between families and teachers to help kids learn.

From urban Boston to suburban Sacramento to rural Montana, the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project is winning the support of districts, teachers unions and community groups because it is driving results regardless of the setting.

To start a home visit project, a school district invites staff from the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project to conduct an introductory training for interested school staff. Once trained, the group identifies and recruits partners. A strong home visit project is usually a collaboration of three organizations: a school district, a community organization and the local teachers union. The partners draw up a budget and set a schedule for visits, reflection and evaluation.

The group will need funds for the training, and to compensate teachers for the visits. Training costs, on average, between $5,000 and $7,000 per district for every 100 teachers trained. This could be covered by school district funds such as Title 1, by teachers unions from the National Education Association’s Priority Schools Campaign, or by funds raised by a nonprofit or community-based organization like the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project, which advises districts and schools on how to secure funding. Paying for teachers’ time to make the visit – an average of $70 for two teachers, for safety and debriefing purposes – can also come from Title 1 funds.

The Parent/Teacher Home Visit begins with the goal of relationship building, with teachers making an appointment to meet with the parent at a time and setting that’s convenient for the family. Ideally the teachers meet with every family whose child attends school.

“In our school community, like many communities around the nation, each family is so diverse and has such a unique impact at the school and in the classroom, that it is vitally important that I visit and build relationships with as many families as possible,” said Smith of her experience.

Parent/Teacher Home Visits are voluntary for families and for teachers, and teachers are compensated for their time. Both teachers and parents make their expectations clear, share their hopes and dreams for the child, and work together to meet them. Following the initial visit, the two sides work as a team on academic goals.

At the Stuart Foundation, we believe in strengthening the relationships most important to children (the child, the teacher and the parent/family/community), because all three must be partners in learning. By supporting these relationships we can better understand how to leverage that strength into improving the entire education system.

As a school superintendent I accompanied teachers on dozens of home visits. What I witnessed was that home visits tear down barriers, grow relationships and serve the whole child in a way that a meeting in a public school setting can’t.

More California school districts ought to adopt The Parent/Teacher Home Visit model, and The Stuart Foundation is eager to scale that work. When schools put home visits at the center, they are fully engaging their most important partner in a child’s academic and emotional success: families.

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Jonathan Raymond is president of the Stuart Foundation and was formerly superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District.

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