Focus

Sending Teachers on Visits to All Homes

by Kelly E. Middleton

Public education is competing with home schools, private schools, voucher programs, cyber-charter schools and virtual schools. In Kentucky’s Mason County Schools, we are preparing for the day when parents and students have complete choice about where their school will be, regardless of socioeconomic status or boundaries.

Our strategy is to solidify connections between school and home.

In 1998, the Mason County School District was ranked 126th out of 176 in Kentucky on the state’s assessment meas-ure, the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System. Today, we boast nine consecutive years of increased assessment scores and reduced achievement gaps. In addition, student discipline incidents have decreased by 50 percent districtwide and enrollment has increased significantly.

Teacher Bonds
These positive trends are due in large part to the school board and administration’s push to increase connections between staff and students in our community. During the past three years, this drive has included the implementation of districtwide home visits by staff.

All 2,800 students in our district, from prekindergarten to grade 12, receive a home visit by their teacher prior to the start of each school year, which generally begins during the second week of August. During the visits, teachers create important bonds and extend education beyond the four walls of the classroom, inviting parents to be a part of their children’s education.

These home visits go a long way toward bridging the barrier created when predominately middle-class teachers find themselves teaching in a school system where 57 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and an even greater percentage are from single-parent households. By taking the time to actually go to homes to meet students and their families, we begin to build the relationships that research suggests are a foundation of student success.

We worked hard for two years to sell the home visit initiative to Mason County’s teachers, rolling out the program for the 2004-2005 school year. Prior, we provided staff with data that clearly show our district’s increased competition from home schools, private schools, voucher programs, cyber-charter schools, charter schools and virtual schools and the implications for their health care and retirement benefits. We also changed the district focus from test scores to teacher-student connections.

We recognized the efforts of teachers who already were making home visits on their own, then recruited several teachers who were willing to participate in a pilot program. We implemented the pilot program at the 4th- and 5th-grade levels at the intermediate school. Through the pilot, staff members could document and share the impact of their visits on academic success, discipline and attendance.

We conduct professional development activities led by school personnel who have done home visits, including counselors, administrators and some teachers. We notify parents about the coming visits and prepare by collecting information about the students and learning safety measures.

One of the most important goals of the training is to delineate the true purpose of the visits — to get to know the individual talents and interests of students. We continually praise and thank our teachers for their willingness to go above and beyond toward making connections with students and their families.

Plan in Motion
Because we do not want the program to be a burden, we ask school leaders to find ways to reduce additional demands on teachers, such as scheduling faculty meetings only when necessary. The district also provides a gas stipend of $125.

Elementary teachers visit each student on their homeroom roster. Middle school teams divide their students among the teachers on the team, while the high school staff focus their efforts on their homeroom students. Members of the school administrative team accompany any teacher who has reservations. New teachers and those who struggle with home visits are paired with colleagues who excel at making connections. All teacher candidates in Mason County know that every teacher is expected to conduct home visits.

Teachers document each visit (or attempted visit) and record important information about each student, including issues that could become a barrier to success, such as health-related issues, divorce or previous school problems. These data sheets follow students throughout their educational careers. After their visits, teachers submit a written statement to school administrators stating they’ve conducted all their home visits.

Reaping Benefits
Not every staff member embraced this initiative at first. Some suggested teachers only visit at-risk students; yet once teachers experienced the impact of their visits, their reluctance dissolved. Sharing poignant home visit stories has become a tradition and serves as an important reminder of the power of developing a culture of caring.

We are encouraged by the preliminary results attributed to the home visit initiative. Teachers are finding out about the gifts, interests and needs of students prior to the first day of school, and they have a better understanding of and more empathy for their students who face a variety of challenges.

Students are making smoother transitions from school to school and parents are more supportive regarding discipline issues. Volunteer hours increased from 8,982 during the 2001-02 school year to 38,212 during 2006-07.

Home visits are just one way to make the vital connection between teacher and student and between home and school. Good customer service, high expectations, a desire to make sure every student is successful and the efforts of all educators help create a culture of caring and achieving.

Kelly Middleton is associate superintendent of Mason County Schools in Maysville, Ky. E-mail:kelly.middleton@mason.kyschools.us. He is the co-author of Who Cares? Improving Public Schools Through Relationships and Customer Service.