Catherine Schafer and Michelle Alexander, sixth grade teachers at Jefferson Academy in Southwest D.C., visit their student, Cameron’s home.
For years, many parents of children in D.C. Public Schools have felt unwelcome. Interaction with parents was almost always one-way: teachers telling parents what they should know. Often the meetings were about bake sales, report cards or discipline.
But multiple research studies have found benefits of family engagement on a child's academic performance, resulting in higher test scores, better attendance and improved graduation rates. Now, some schools in the District are trying to build relationships with families, one home visit at a time.
Kristin Ehrgood is the founder of the Flamboyan Foundation, which is working with teachers in 20 D.C. schools. She says she envisioned a two-way exchange where teachers learn from parents. "What are your hopes and dreams for your child? What do I need to do so I can be a great teacher for your child? That in and of itself changes the dynamic radically."
On some home visits, D.C. teachers have found a student's entire family lives in a single room. Sometimes a child has no books at home, or the family speaks a different language. They also learn a child's nickname, meet siblings and hear family stories. All those tiny details form relationships that can help improve a student's learning.
On one such home visit, teachers Michelle Alexander and Catherine Schafer from Jefferson Academy in Southwest D.C., cheer for their student Cameron, who is playing the cello for them. Cameron's musical talent is a little tidbit about him these teachers wouldn't normally have known. They also learn he wants to play basketball, he's very loving with his baby brother and his grandmother helps raise him. His mother Jamila Johnson says he's helpful at home, "He's my good son. He knows the computer. He shows me things."
The Flamboyan Foundation spends approximately $45,000 dollars a year to train teachers in each of the 20 D.C. schools. It pays those teachers extra for these home visits and funds the educational materials they send home to parents. Over the past two years, teachers have visited more than 3,000 thousand homes.
Multiple research studies have found that the benefits of family engagement on a child's academic performance are "consistent, positive and convincing." It leads to higher test scores, better attendance and improved graduation rates. And Natalie Gordon, principal at Jefferson Middle School and Academy in Southwest D.C., says she's already seeing the benefits of what she calls the "exhausting but awesome" effort.
Gordon says these home visits are a "huge priority" for her, especially since about half her staff is new this year. Last year her school had 250 suspensions. This year, she says they're on track to cut that rate in half. "There are students that are surprised that teachers are coming into their homes, so they check their behavior a little bit more in the school building because they think, 'oh my god, my teacher might come back!"
Rena Johnson, an assistant principal at Stanton Elementary School in Southeast D.C., says her teachers are conscious of how they talk even while setting up the visit, calling the parents 'mom' and 'dad' rather than 'Mr. and Mrs.' She says that helps set an informal tone. Because of safety concerns, teachers always go in pairs. And she says they don't take notes.
"For some of our families when folks are writing, it's social services, and for our families they don't want someone checking to see if their clothes are washed, or clean."
Stanton Elementary saw a more than 10 percent drop in truancy after doing home visits. Johnson also attributes the school's doubling of reading scores and tripling of math scores to their work with parents. Parent Letitia Bragg says in the past she felt like just another parent... "another number, like my child would not be a priority to a teacher. As of now, I don't have that issue. I'm satisfied!"
The first part of the Flamboyan strategy for family engagement is building relationships; the second is giving parents tools so they can help their child learn.
At Bancroft Elementary School in Northwest D.C., Principal Zakia Reid says parental involvement isn't a problem at her school, which has almost 100 percent attendance for school events. But she still felt parents were not involved in their child's academic progress.
"It's hard for teachers to tell parents their kids are struggling; they say your child is nice, send mixed reports because it's hard to tell parents their kids are behind grade level." Now, all communication is translated. And teachers show parents a simple, clear graph so they can see, for example, how many words their child knows and what the goal is.
Beth King is a parent at Bancroft and says this new outreach has helped make her "accountable." "It put more responsibility on my desk as well because I can't just send her to school; we have to come home and practice." And there's a lot to practice. Teachers play a bingo word game with parents, give them flash cards and show them math puzzles to try out at home.
The evening ends with a rousing raffle with prizes. Principal Reid looks at her parents talking about word lists and math problems and finally answers a question I asked earlier. Why would a principal with so much on her plate already, want to deal with hundreds more adults?
"I think it's the only way that we're going to make a difference."
The challenge for D.C. schools will be continuing these successes into higher grades where families are typically less involved, 'scaling up' the effort so it's more than 20 carefully chosen schools, and continuing to fund this work if the Flamboyan grants are no longer available. But for now, Reid and others say, this is a crucial first step.
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