Wednesday, September 11, 2013

House Calls

Teaching is the most undervalued profession there is. In recent years some states have proposed cutting teachers salaries, as if their jobs are not vital. But the truth is, teachers are our most valuable commodity because they educate our children, and our children are our most important investment. 

But education starts at home, and a child's most formative years are the ones during which they do not attend school. Parents are our children's original educator's, or at least they should be. It would be advantageous to parents, teachers, and most of all children, if parents and teachers could work together to insure that the value of education is reinforced with both parents and teachers being on the same page. With this in mind, one Chicago school district has embarked on an ambitious new program.

New teachers gathered in a gymnasium recently, training for what many never expected would be part of their job description, making house calls.

"Is this scheduled or do we just turn up?" asked one teacher.

"Always scheduled," answered the trainer.

"Do we take someone with us another teacher or security guard?"

"No," said, the trainer, explaining that more than one visitor can create a different dynamic. "These are pretty safe neighborhoods."

"Is this about getting to know the child or the parent? Or is it so we can say, 'If there's a problem we'll be contacting you'?"

"What you want to be is agenda-less. You're trying to get to know them as people."

The United Neighborhood Organization, the influential Latino group that runs one of the largest charter school networksin the city, requires its teachers to make two home visits a year to each child. UNO's success with the parent outreach triggered Chicago Public Schools' new CEO to suggest that teachers at all CPS schools should be making house calls. That comment precipitated an outburst of alarm from teachers across the city concerned about safety and whether they would get compensated for the after-school visits.

But while Jean-Claude Brizard's off-the-cuff comments were just that, it turns out that home visits are not new to education in the city. Some charter schools and a few teachers at neighborhood schools visit student homes every year, trying to engage parents and cementing relationships with them. The house calls can also provide teachers a window into a student's behavioral problems. Yes, they've often worried about safety and unwelcoming parents, but teachers who conduct house calls say the benefits outpace the risks.

"When I first started, I remember being scoffed at by teachers," says Anik Zampini, 35, principal of LEARN charter schools' new Hunter Perkins campus, who started visiting homes as a teacher at UNO in 1998, when the charter didn't mandate the house calls. "They said I was being a showoff. But at that point, I was frustrated. I was not connecting withmy students and felt my parents were against me. I was like, 'I'm going to have to do something different. I need to let them know that I care.'"

In those early days, he would go unannounced, sit outside parents' homes in East Garfield Park and North Lawndale, and wait until someone answered the door. He had bricks thrown at him and threats from area residents.

But he persisted, got his foot in the door and eventually built lasting relationships with families, he said. He also learned a few lessons. Now, he tells his teachers never to go without an appointment. And to leave if no one answers after a few knocks on the door.

But most Chicago teachers are not as fearless as Zampini. In June, when Brizard championed house calls, many educators in the city were alarmed.

During a news conference at UNO school Brizard said Four hundred thousand kids in CPS, 25,000 teachers. If you count principals, assistant principals, office staff  if we each took 10 kids and promised to visit one a month, can you imagine? We could do it too."

When asked about teacher safety in violence-plagued communities, he said, "Our kids go there every day, so why not?"

The teachers union called the suggestion a "half-baked" idea, and teachers took to local blogs to complain.

"Where is the responsibility of the parents? There is no responsibility on their part. I am not going to do it," wrote one teacher.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll says Brizard's comments came in response to a question on whether he thought house calls were a good idea. The district has no plans to institute home visits at this time, but believes it should be left to the discretion of each school, Carroll said.

That's what Parent Teacher Home Visit Project recommends. The nonprofit, which started as an effort to encourage house calls in Sacramento, Calif., now has programs in 11 states. The project recommends the visits be voluntary for both parents and teachers. And it calls for teachers to be paid a stipend of $20 to $35 per visit.

At UNO, home visits are required. Teachers do not get any extra compensation, and parents have no choice.

UNO Chief Operating Officer Phil Mullins told teachers that the house calls are part of the group's community organizing roots.

"For the past 30 years we've been struggling to try and transform urban education," he said. "Part of what we need to do is be innovative. We need to create relationships to the community in a way that goes beyond school."

Many neighborhood school teachers are also initiating meetings at parents' homes to address their most academically challenged students or those with behavioral problems such as falling asleep in class and hygiene or anger issues. For them, making house calls is similar to handing out cellphone numbers or giving out their email addresses: It's about engaging parents and getting them involved in their kids' education.

Some, like Elvira Rivera, 51, will take books along to model for parents how they can help their kids learn to read. Rivera drops by parents' homes after they don't show up for open houses or don't answer phone calls.

"At the beginning, some parents were angry," says Rivera, who teaches at Claremont Academy Elementary School in Englewood. "Their first words were, 'What's the problem?' But I start by telling them about the positives about their child and how they're doing. Then I get into the behavior problem. Usually it ends with them saying, 'Thank you so much for coming because I wouldn't have known what he was doing in school.'"

 Sandra Johnson, who has taught for 16 years, buys her neediest students clothes and school supplies out of her own wallet, visits their parents at home and encourages those parents to work with the children on limited math and reading skills. She has always seen the extra effort as an extension of teaching.

"You're reaching out," says Johnson, 56, a teacher at Oglesby Elementary School in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. "You're making a connection. When you break it down to 'We are all friends,' that breaks the ice. You become one team."

On a recent day, she visited student Vanessa Ward at her home. All of last year, Johnson had never entered the child's home, instead talking to her mother by the front gate. After finally being invited inside, Johnson said she had a better idea of the challenges the girl was facing and the needs of the family. She made mental notes of furniture they could use, and then took the opportunity to reinforce some positive parenting skills.

She also told Vanessa's mother, Michelle Ward, 30, not to finish all the homework herself but rather show the 9-year-old how to do one math problem: "If she can do one and understand how she got there, that's all I need," Johnson said.

Michelle Ward said Johnson's special interest in her child has resulted in a marked improvement in her daughter. Last year the girl watched as her grandfather was stabbed to death, Ward said, and the child became less verbal. With Johnson's help, Vanessa has improved two to three grade levels in math and reading, and she is beginning to speak in school.

"Some teachers are so mean and don't help or nothing," Michelle Ward said. Johnson, though, has "no attitude. She's a sweetheart."

While I understand the hesitation on the part of some teachers, I believe that their participation is imperative. While there will always be a few ignorant parents, I believe that the majority will appreciate having an ally they can see face to face, who has taken both a personal and professional interest in their child. Not just a name.


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