Home Visits – Flipping the Family Engagement Script

By Roxanne James

For the first 10 years that Jerome D. Mack Middle School, in Las Vegas, Nev., was open, skin color, religious preferences, gang affiliation, language skills—and most of all—public opinion were barriers to what our students could achieve.

The rules for our kids were not written with the pens of affluence; they were written with a predetermined zip code script, a future inked with indelible lines directed toward prison and generational poverty.

As educators, we felt lost on how to create a partnership with families who didn’t always trust us. Our parents did not feel like partners within our system.

They rarely felt comfortable coming to our school at all, yet they were sending to us the most important resource they had—their kids. In an effort to change all of that, our school decided to flip the script on what “family engagement” means.

We Wanted to Make a Difference

As the principal, in fall 2016 I coordinated a partnership with Parent Teacher Home Visits (PTHVP) out of California. We were going to begin “home visits”—a time when parent, teacher and child come together to discuss family needs and goals, and to support and enhance the parental role as the main influence on a child’s education and development.

Armed with the work of Dr. Karen Mapp out of Stanford University, we trained our staff on how to properly conduct a home visit. It isn’t an activity to jump into without guidance. A home visit gone wrong is more damaging than having no relationship-building at all. Our belief was this: If our families knew we were truly their partners in educating their children, then we could more easily be successful in doing so.

As we started training, it became apparent that our educators were beginning to feel exactly how our families had
been feeling: insecure, scared and unsure of what visiting the home of a stranger would entail. “Will we be safe? Will they accept us? Will they understand why we are here?”

These were exactly the questions that were keeping families away from our school. And it was enlightening for all of
us to be the ones out of our comfort zones. Thus began an understanding of why family engagement done in the
traditional sense doesn’t always work.

Our staff worked through their fears and decided to give home visits a try. We asked teachers to choose three students to visit: a shining star, a fading star and an invisible star. And these home visits are voluntary.

My staff is not paid to do the work because I don’t want this to be about fulfilling a requirement. And when we make contact with the families, they can decline the invitation. But what we found was a willing staff, and a cautious, yet enthusiastic family reception.

And so our work began.

The protocols were simple, involving only three questions…

  • To the child: Who are you outside of your school?
  • To the child: What are your hopes and dreams for when
    one day you become an adult?
  • To the family: What are your hopes and dreams for your
    child and how can we help to make them come true?

These are powerful questions that we found had never been asked of our families or students. Surprisingly, many struggled at first to answer. But we waited, giving them time and space to reflect on how they truly felt. You see, our educators (who work in pairs) come with no agenda.

We don’t bring papers; we don’t try to push our thoughts and beliefs onto anyone’s family. The purpose of the home visit is to soak up all of the information we can possibly get about how to best reach each child.

A visit lasts between 30 and 45 minutes, but in many cases, neither side wants it to end. When our two entities come
together and work together, the child ends up being the winner.

“I love teacher-student home visits. The children need to know that parents, teachers and staff are all working together at school and home,” said parent Christine Schubert. “Teachers and parents are not just around part time. We all need to be there for our children all of the time.”

Measuring Our Impact

About a month into our home visits, our staff met to reflect on our work. My expectation was to hear about what we had learned about the students. But what we learned from our staff was profound—the teachers and educators learned more about themselves, about their implicit biases and about their judgments than they thought they ever would.

What was life-changing was how much they had to adjust their way of thinking in order to reach the students. Each of them recognized the power of the visit.

“Going in I had a preconceived judgment of what to expect, but my home visits helped me to have a better understanding of my students’ home life,” said teacher Dana Wynne. “This broke down walls and built strong relationships among all of us. I have used the information to help create positive educational experiences for my students.”

For all of us at Mack Middle School, home visits changed our level of engagement. Parents are more comfortable with coming to our school. Students who have not been visited are asking their teachers if they will come to their home. Teachers are more willing to pick up a phone and start a conversation.

And the most powerful result—the students have changed who they are in the classroom. They have a spark and confidence that wasn’t there before.

Start the conversation in your school community. Sit down with the principal to discuss starting a home visit program. It will change the playing field for your teachers, families and most of all our students.

Roxanne James is the principal of Jerome D. Mack Middle School in Las Vegas, Nev.


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