- Associated Press - Friday, October 10, 2014

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Lisa Koester learns more about her fifth-graders sitting on their living room couches than she ever would in the classroom.

On a recent afternoon, the Maplewood-Richmond Heights teacher paid a visit to one of her pupil’s homes, offering her a personal parent-teacher interaction.

“I could be doing this or poring over lesson plans in my classroom,” Koester said afterward. “It gives me a huge advantage. You know how valuable it is and just make it a priority.”

It’s just not always so easy getting teachers there.

Many St. Louis-area schools have picked up the idea of teacher home visits in the last decade, but not all have stuck with it. Obstacles include teachers crunched for time and families resistant to opening their houses to school staff, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported (https://bit.ly/ZRbytU ).

But once inside, the relationships built with parents pay off for the child and the school, says Karen Kalish, founder of the teacher home visit program based in St. Louis.

The Maplewood-Richmond Heights School District was in midst of a transformation several years ago when leaders decided to try home visits as a way to build parent involvement. The district was one of the first to try Kalish’s program. This year, Home Works is in more than two dozen schools in Missouri.

Kalish and her team pitch the program like this: Missouri students, on average, spend less than 14 percent of their year in school. After factoring in sleep, that leaves 53 percent in the hands of parents or guardians.

Parent behavior - such as reading to a preschooler or making space for a teenager to do homework - are crucial to the academic success of their child, Kalish said. The program helps teachers help parents.

“These are the things, honestly, that only they can do at home,” said Charles Pearson, a former school administrator who now trains teachers for Home Works. “We’re not there.”

The concept of sending teachers into their students’ homes seems simple. Yet, the program has its challenges, even with the backing of a philanthropist such as Kalish.

“We need the buy-in,” Kalish said. “It’s so hard to do it without the principal saying, ‘I’m all for it.’”

Through the years, Home Works leaders have developed a model they believe has the potential to help low-performing schools in low-income communities. Teachers are asked to attend two mandatory training sessions, then go on two home visits a year for each student. Two teachers are on every visit.

The school is supposed to host two family dinners and designate two site coordinators. Home Works trains and supports the teachers, and it pays them for their time, as well as the cost of the family dinners and transportation for families who need help getting there.

Some teachers resist because of the amount of time it takes to set up visits. Parents can be reluctant - or even refuse - to have a teacher set foot in their home.

One evaluation showed that some teachers were mostly visiting children who were doing well in school and missing the ones who needed visits most. That could be because those parents also were less likely to return a phone call or answer the door. And it is sometimes easier to get a kindergartner’s parents to set up a visit than one for a teenager.

“They were going for the low-hanging fruit,” Kalish said. “We want the ones that say, ‘No way.’”

Home Works is determined those barriers can be overcome with training.

Last week, teachers practiced with scripts making the initial phone call to parents to set up a visit. They role-played the first home visit, with one teacher pretending to be the parent while two others worked through what they would say and do. They ran through scenarios if parents canceled, or didn’t open the door. They left with binders of nearly 100 pages of information to guide them.

“One of the first things you do is give a compliment when you walk in that door,” Pearson told them. “You’re developing rapport.”

Many of the success stories from teacher home visit programs are anecdotal. Surveys show parents, who in the past had only bad experiences with schools, feel more connected and comfortable contacting a teacher.

Herbert Buie, principal of Pershing Elementary in the University City district, said parents used to call him first instead of their child’s teacher.

“When kids know parents and teachers are on the same page, then they’re more apt to do what they’re supposed to,” he said.

Parent Trecia Buckner said a teacher visit at home before her son started kindergarten last year at Flynn Park Elementary made him more comfortable on his first day and better behaved.

“He wanted to make her happy,” she said. “He also knew that ‘my mom knows my teacher.’”

Many teachers surveyed have said they feel the majority of students they visit showed improved academic performance, turned in homework more often and participated in class more.

But Kalish wants more than good feelings about the program - she wants hard data.

So far, independent research suggests modest gains in attendance. Academic achievement rose in two of five participating districts, while discipline improved in one of four. At South City Prep, a charter school, pupils who had teacher home visits scored higher on the state math tests in 2011-12 than the previous year.

This year, Kalish has contracted with an evaluation company and hired her own data manager to cull even more information from teachers about visits and the effect on students and academic performance.

As Home Works moves forward, not all schools have opted to stick with the model. Other school administrators are slow to sign up.

In response the program has created a fellowship for teachers who want to do home visits but are not at participating schools. Thirty teachers from 13 schools made more than 250 visits last year through the fellowship.

Home Works also seeks to wean participating schools from their support. Schools who have participated for three to five years are encouraged to continue home visits on their own.

Maplewood-Richmond Heights made that transition and now is in its third year paying for home visits from its own budget.

Although every teacher can do home visits if desired, the district focuses on hitting homes when students are making transitions - those new to Maplewood-Richmond Heights, middle-schoolers and freshmen. That doesn’t mean teachers have cut back. Last year, they went on more than 750 home visits, compared to about 300 in 2008-2009 and the most in the last six years.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” Superintendent Karen Hall said. “We had to find our way. We found through the years we needed to change it and be more targeted.”

With two children in the district, Danny Stewart and Brianna Agard said they have become at ease with teacher visits. The family was one who Koester visited in Richmond Heights. Each visit becomes less awkward, they said, and helps them to get to know their children’s teachers.

Once you are in somebody’s home, “you don’t have to make inferences,” Danny Stewart said.

The Home Works program has now expanded to Columbia, Missouri, and Kalish would love to see it throughout schools in Missouri.

“This is hard work to get teachers to find the time to do this,” she said. “But it is absolutely vital and crucial. What’s going to move the needle in schools is to move the needle at home.”

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, https://www.stltoday.com

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