St. Paul teachers visit students’ homes in search of common ground


Crossroads Montessori elementary teacher Ida Lee Hurvitz has made home visits. She’s brought food to sick parents or visited homes of students who died. Como High math teacher Bruce Ringaman hasn’t made house calls, but he has made phone calls, mostly to problem students’ parents. “The more parents I spoke to, the better my classroom got,” he said.

But after attending a training Saturday led by teachers from Sacramento, home of the Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project, both say they’re ready to start visiting parents before problems exist.

In an age where test scores close schools, where parents blame teachers for bullying and bad grades, and teachers blame parents for behavior and poor attendance, common ground is hard to come by. That’s what home visits seek: common ground on a parent’s own couch.

John A. Johnson elementary science teacher Nick Faber is leading an effort to bring the model that organizers claim transformed schools in Sacramento, to St. Paul. Last year, with grant money from the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, seven John A. Johnson teachers and one principal received home visit training. Three training sessions since attracted a total of 66 St. Paul teachers. And Faber said the teachers’ union submitted a proposal to the district to include compensation for home visits in teacher contracts, a tough sell in tough economic times.

Faber said the point of the program is to treat parents as partners in their child’s education. “We see a lot of parent involvement things that really look at parents as a deficit, that they don’t know how to do something, so we’re going to swoop in and show them how,” he said. “What this model works on is that the parent is an asset that has some knowledge that we don’t have.”

“There’s not a whole lot of magic to this,” he said. “It’s really a basic thing of getting to know them better in a place of their choosing.”

Teachers set up a time to visit parents. They show up. They talk. And that’s about it. There are a few rules: Give parents a choice of time and place – just not the school. Come in pairs – a single mom might not feel comfortable alone with a man she doesn’t know. Don’t just visit problem students, and don’t come carrying clipboards and paper. This is no conference.

The most important question: What are parents’ hopes and dreams for their children? And how is the school helping them achieve those dreams – or not?

A duo of teachers visited John A. Johnson parent Dana Frase last year, and Faber visited the family again this year. “It was very informal, just a get to know you time,” Frase said, and an exciting time for her fourth-grade daughter. “We have geckos so it was, ‘Come see our geckos!’”

Frase drives her daughter across town to attend John A. Johnson every day, because she wants her to develop friendships with people of diverse backgrounds. She was able to share that with her child’s teacher during the visit.

Faber said being able to talk in terms of “that conversation we had with your mom” is useful in the classroom. Teachers are also encouraged to come to the home with one expectation for the student – another useful classroom tool.

He said that although parents seem skeptical at first, most eventually agree to the visits. And if they don’t, that’s fine. Another project rule is that home visits are voluntary for parents and teachers.

Advocates of home visits say pay-offs can be huge. Some Sacramento schools have seen suspension rates drop, attendance rates rise and the contentious gold standard: higher test scores. Schools in 11 other states have home visit programs.

But implementing home visits on a large scale comes with challenges. One of the biggest is compensation. Carrie Rose, executive director of the Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project said most districts with sustained home visit programs pay their teachers. Right now, no St. Paul teacher is paid for visits. Faber said the St. Paul school district seems open to the union’s proposal to put home visit pay in contracts, but they’re not committed yet. Details of the proposal have not been made public.

Even with pay, not all teachers are ready to add another hour to their day. “I get looks from some teachers, like, ‘I ain’t gonna do that,’” Faber said. He encourages teachers to start small, with as few as three visits the first year.

“St. Paul does initiative after initiative, so the fact that this is voluntary is positive,” Como math teacher Ringaman said. He is against putting visits into the contract.

Pay or no pay, Crossroads teacher Hurvitz is on board. “When the community cares and everybody’s there to support each other, the children will thrive. That is the whole key; we’re not working in isolation.”


Correction 10/23/2011: School name: John A. Johnson