Home Visits Yield Hope and Cooperation
It is pushing 8:00 p.m. on a Tuesday and two teachers and a paraeducator from Roberts High School in Salem, Oregon, are wrapping up their second family home visit of the evening.
As the sun sets on the carefully coiffed lawn of the Alvarez family, the Roberts’ team of Ranada Young, Lauren Rasca, and Jackelin Mariaca stop on the sidewalk to admire the bonsai-style trees trimmed to perfection by Giovanni Alvarez, a senior at Roberts and owner of Gio’s Landscaping Services.
“Did you do this?” asks Young, a teacher. “Amazing!”
Young, Rasca, also a teacher, and Mariaca, a bilingual instructional assistant, are not as fresh as when they visited their first family, two hours and 12 miles ago. But the yellow-orange glow falling on Giovanni’s manicured grass and blooming flowers lifts their spirits with pride.
“This kid is going places,” declares a beaming Young.
Going Places, with the Help of the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project
Giovanni, the student-entrepreneur, was not always going places. The soft-spoken and dapper 17-year-old was expelled from a previous school but is now set to graduate this year from Roberts Structured Learning Center, which serves students on expulsion in affiliation with Roberts High School.
The three educators are visiting Giovanni and his parents, Jose and Rosalba Alvarez, to talk—just talk—about family, work, neighborhood, school, whatever comes up. Mariaca arranged the visit over the telephone and stressed to Mrs. Alvarez that the visit was not in response to disciplinary concerns and would last about 40 minutes.
This is the first of at least three meetings that the school team intends to have with the family. The Roberts team is following a model for home meetings called the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project (PTHVP), a national effort designed to nurture student success that is headquartered in Sacramento, California.
The project began in 1998 and is active in 17 states. According to PTHVP’s mission, parents and teachers are equally important co-educators because parents are experts on their children and educators are experts on curricula. Research shows that gains in student achievement are possible when parents support students’ learning at home, particularly for traditionally underachieving students.
Since last fall, about 25 teachers and education support professionals (ESPs) from four schools in the Salem-Keizer district (where Roberts is located) have been doing home visits according to the PTHVP model. The volunteer participants, who are paid a stipend, are trained on ways to break the “cycle of blame” for student underachievement by bringing parents and educators together in a home setting. The project also exemplifies partnerships between NEA affiliates, school districts, and community leaders. Most of the participants in Salem-Keizer are members of the Oregon Education Association.
The participating schools in Salem-Keizer have a history of low student achievement, high levels of poverty, and a high percentage of children entering school as English language learners. Each school recently received a School Improvement Grant and is involved with NEA’s Priority School Campaign, which focuses on raising student achievement in struggling schools by leveraging community assets, improving staff capacity, developing family and community partnerships, and improving district and local Association capacity.
The home visit project in Salem-Keizer was introduced to the district by the Association of Salem-Keizer Education Support Professionals (ASK-ESP). In 2011, ASK-ESP contacted PTHVP staff and helped to fund travel, lodging, and training costs for project coordinators from Sacramento to visit Salem for three weekend training sessions, explained Leslie Lindberg-Harper, ASK-ESP president.
“It’s not only teachers participating, despite the name,” Lindberg-Harper says. “Many of the kids are so close to so many ESPs that they [ESPs] were eager to get involved.”
An ESP such as Mariaca is invaluable because of her bilingual skills (she did the translating at both home visits), extensive knowledge of Hispanic culture, and willingness, like all participants, to venture into neighborhoods that sometimes have unleashed dogs, limited parking, or poorly lit streets.
Home Visits Build Trust, Invite Participation
To prepare for two home visits on that Tuesday, Mariaca and Rasca meet in the Roberts school library at 4:30 p.m. to finalize plans.
By 5:30 p.m., the educators arrive at their first home visit and are sitting in a tight circle in the family living room of Flavio Zaragoza, a junior at Roberts. Like Giovanni, Flavio had been expelled from a previous school before enrolling at the learning center. With only 150 students, the center offers a smaller learning environment where students are able to build relationships with staff, focus on positive social behavior, and enjoy an opportunity for academic recovery. But without parental involvement, the mission to help students graduate and “reach their full potential is very difficult,” says Lorelei Gilmore, principal of Roberts High School.
The conversation around the Zaragozas’ table is casual, even light-hearted. The family and school team discuss school, church, Mexico, video games—whatever comes up.
“We enjoy Flavio’s smile,” says Rasca to Humberto and Marcela Zaragoza and their daughter, Maribel, 18, and younger son, Enrique, 14. “I’ve also heard good things about him from the other teachers.”
“You’ve done a good job raising him,” Mariaca adds.
Says Principal Gilmore: “To turn students around in this type of environment, we have to step into their world and learn who they are as human beings.” She adds, “I’d rank home visits at the very top as a key to getting these kids to succeed. Once you establish trust between the family and school, you can make some real breakthroughs.”
Getting Giovanni to Graduation
At the Alvarez home, Giovanni serves orange juice to his guests and family, seated at a long rectangular kitchen table. The educators are there not only to build trust between themselves and the family but also to increase their awareness regarding student achievement, school support services, and, in particular, Giovanni’s graduation requirements.
Mrs. Alvarez volunteers that she was concerned that her son would never cross the stage. Giovanni did not like his previous school, so he stopped going, got expelled, and started working at a factory processing broccoli.
“He likes to work,” says Mrs. Alvarez. “But we would like for him to continue studying.”
Mr. and Mrs. Alvarez are immigrants from Mexico who have worked hard to give Giovanni and his two younger sisters a better life in the U.S. They have a modest education background, speak very little English, and are unfamiliar with the U.S. public school system. The educators explain that if everyone in the room works together, they can overcome all barriers so Giovanni will graduate and continue his education.
“A lot of people respect Giovanni,” Mariaca says. “With his business, he is kind of a role model for other students.”
An aura of fellowship is evident at the table. Before they leave the Alvarez home, the Roberts team informs the family about higher education possibilities for Giovanni, as well as about upcoming PTA meetings and Parents Night. They invite Mrs. Alvarez to join them in trying to get more parents involved with school activities. She agrees to help.