When Katrina Branch got a note from her niece's elementary school saying educators at the school were visiting students' homes, she was immediately concerned.
Branch had lost her mother and sister in quick succession and had recently moved to Washington, D.C., from Pennsylvania to raise her sister's five children.
"Teachers just don't come to your home unless something bad is going on in the home," said Branch. "My thought was they were going to come in and find something wrong and take the kids away from me."
She eventually agreed to a home visit, and that visit, she said, changed her life. The teachers who came to her home asked about the family's hopes and dreams and asked her niece about her favorite toys and activities. The visit made Branch feel included and welcome at the school, she said.
It was such a positive experience that Branch began volunteering at the school, became a Parent Teacher Organization president, sat on school committees, and saw the school even hang her picture on the wall. She now works as a classroom aide and in the before- and after-school program at a D.C. charter school.
"There's so many divisions happening right now and the home visit practice, I think, breaks down those barriers."
Executive director of Parent Teacher Home Visits
And, 12 years after that first home visit, Branch is a national trainer for Parent Teacher Home Visits, a nonprofit organization that promotes positive school-home relationships through home visits.
"Once I let my guard down, it opened up so many doors for me, and I felt at ease to go and talk to the teachers in the building because they knew I was a concerned parent, and they knew I valued my nieces' education," Branch said.
Parent Teacher Home Visits is an optional program for both educators and families. Although many teachers, especially those in early elementary grades, make home visits before the school year to welcome children and their parents, this is a specific program with five core practices:
- Visits are always voluntary and arranged in advance.
- Teachers are trained and compensated for visits outside the school day.
- The focus of the first visit is to create a positive relationship by discussing the hopes and dreams of the student, family and teachers.
- Teachers visit a cross section of students' homes to avoid stigma or perceived preferences.
- Teachers conduct home visits in pairs and reflect on each visit afterward.
Ideally, teachers visit a student's family twice a school year, once at the start and then again in the winter or spring. Each visit, which includes the student, lasts about 30-45 minutes.
While the first visit does not include discussion of the student's academic needs or progress, the second visit could touch on preparing the student for the next grade level or other educational information.
Gina Martinez-Keddy, executive director of the PTHV program, said it aims to make home visits a foundational practice in schools. "I always say that when you have trust within a school, among families and the school, that probably everything else is going to work a whole lot better," she said.
Since the organization's founding in 2003, educators have made 26,507 face-to-face and virtual visits nationwide to students in grades pre-K through 12. School districts and schools have to opt into the program because those entities typically pay the teacher's stipends, which are contracted at an hourly rate based on locally agreed-upon wages and include driving time and expenses, Martinez-Keddy said. Not all the schools in a district or all the teachers in a school have to participate.
The information teachers glean on the visits can be used to incorporate students' interests and preferences into lessons. The main goal is to start the school year with positive home-school connections, Martinez-Keddy said.
Those positive connections can lead to increased parent involvement, higher student attendance rates, a reduction in implicit biases educators and families may have, and even a willingness to discuss more difficult topics like academic or behavioral concerns if those arise during the school year, she said.
Research published by Johns Hopkins School of Education in 2018 found, on average, schools that systematically implemented PTHV experienced decreased rates of chronic absenteeism and increased rates of English Language Arts and math proficiency. In one district studied, schools that regularly conducted home visits saw a 5% increase in students scoring proficient on the ELA test, compared with 3% for schools that did not conduct home visits or that did so with fewer than 10% of students’ families.
Additionally, research found students attending a school that conducted home visits with at least 10% of students’ families were less likely to be chronically absent.
"There's so many divisions happening right now and the home visit practice, I think, breaks down those barriers," Martinez-Keddy said. "It allows people to sit down and see each other as human beings."
Yesenia Ramirez co-founded PTHV when she was a single mother of six girls and had just left an abusive relationship. Her activism began from frustration.
She showed up at her daughter's school in California's Sacramento City Unified School District one day in 1995 to discuss concerns she had about her child's reading progress. The teacher wasn't available to talk to her, so she left her phone number.
When no one called her after several weeks, she went back to the school and waited for 45 minutes. Still, no one offered to talk with her.
As she was leaving the school building, she muttered a curse word in Spanish. At the same time, a woman was entering the building, heard her and asked what was wrong. It happened to be the school's vice principal, who led Ramirez to her office where they discussed the lack of connections between the school and the community, including parents.
Ramirez and the vice principal, along with other parents and educators, began researching ways to improve relationships. The organizers had heard positive reactions from both teachers and families about home visits so they launched a pilot program and conducted 150 home visits over two years, said Ramirez.
They took their research to the local teacher union, which supported the effort, and then to the district superintendent, who agreed to the program after going on several home visits. The home visit program launched in 1998 in six elementary and two middle schools in the Sacramento district, funded with $100,000 from the district, Ramirez said.
"When you go to the house, we are not teachers. We are big listeners that ask the correct questions."
P.E. and health teacher in the Washoe County School District
The next year, six more schools joined in. Soon, other school systems in California and other states adopted the model. Ramirez is delighted the grassroots home visiting program took off nationally.
According to Ramirez, home visits help communities understand how much educators do for students and families. "If we can support them in any way, I think that's when the success happens," Ramirez said.
"We are just like our kiddos"
Tyler Post, a PE and health teacher in Washoe County School District in Reno, Nevada, became involved in the home visit program five years ago when he taught at an alternative school in the district. He had received a district email about the program and, since he had been doing informal home visits throughout his multi-decade education career, signed up for the training. Now, he also trains other teachers to do home visits using PTHV core practices.
When Post first contacts parents to request a home visit, he tries to immediately put them at ease by telling them what a good day their child is having at school. If parents don't want to participate, he doesn't push but will check in a few weeks or months to see if they've changed their minds.
Educators involved in PTHV say two of the biggest barriers to home visits is finding time to meet with parents and working through any hesitations about the visits.
Post says if parents aren't comfortable meeting him at their homes, he suggests other meeting places, such as a park or restaurant. He even met a family while they were grocery shopping.
On the home visits, Post says he enjoys learning about students' passions and parents' goals for their children. He also likes sharing with families and students what he enjoys about being a teacher.
"We're not there to give them our opinions," Post said. As he trains other teachers, he tells them, "When you go to the house, we are not teachers. We are big listeners that ask the correct questions."
Post says he and other teachers get as much out of the visits as the families and students do. "It challenged us [the teachers], and there were days we all get to tears going, 'This is the best ever that we get to share,' and it makes us kind of step aside as educators and say we are just like our kiddos. We're the same. We have hopes and dreams."
Nancy Lopez was introduced to PTHV 18 years ago when she was a student teacher and her mentor teacher took her on a home visit. After teaching kindergarten in a dual language school in Sacramento for a few years, she decided to do home visits with her students' families and said the practice was the "biggest game changer in my career as a teacher, because it really connected me with my students and families."
She always conducted her initial home visits before the school year began so she could get to know the families and students, and they could get to know her. "On the first day of school, no one would cry. There was not a single parent that would cry on the first day leaving the students with me," said Lopez, laughing.
Lopez is now the family and community engagement resource teacher for the Elk Grove Unified School District in California near Sacramento where she manages the district’s home visit program.
In her district, more than 120 languages are spoken, Lopez said. When families and educators don't speak the same language, the school will offer to bring an interpreter or ask the family if they prefer a friend or relative other than the student to interpret. Some visits occur even without interpreters, with educators and families sharing photos, artwork and time together, she said.
"I think taking that little extra step into family homes and really listening to what they're all about and listening to their experiences," Lopez said, "I mean, it's amazing what you learn."