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My teacher comes to visit: how home visiting engages families, improves child learning

Like most November days in the Pacific Northwest, it is raining. Deb McGowan, a second grade teacher at east Portland’s Earl Boyles Elementary, and Andreina Velasco, Early Works site liaison at Earl Boyles, make their way through the wind and rain to visit the home of Maria Espino, mother of second grader Jose Martinez, who’s a student in McGowan’s class.  Although McGowan and Maria have known each other for years – Maria’s older son Mario also had Deb as a teacher – this is the first time Deb has visited Maria’s home. There is excitement in the air, and a few nerves too.

Once coats and hats are removed, and shoes are wiped off, McGowan and Maria – with a little help from translator Velasco – sit down to share their hopes and dreams for Jose. At the dinner table, Jose sits nearby, while Maria holds her younger daughter on her lap. During the course of the visit, McGowan learns that Maria’s children are primarily speaking English in the home (Maria’s first language is Spanish). McGowan gives a pair of books to Jose and Maria with side-by-side translations. The books will allow Jose to practice his English reading while Maria follows along in Spanish. As they read to one another, they begin to smile.

Since the inception of its preschool program associated with the Early Works initiative in 2012, Earl Boyles has been gradually expanding and formalizing its home visiting program. Preschool teachers at Earl Boyles have been practicing voluntary home visits for at least three years. Currently, preschool teachers are expected to visit all of their Head Start families twice a year, and are encouraged to visit their non-Head Start families at least once a year. Now Earl Boyles teachers in grades K-5 are following suit. In June of this year the Sacramento-based Parent Teacher Home Visit Project conducted a training at Earl Boyles. In total, 45 teachers and school staff attended – including 15 from neighboring schools in the David Douglas School District. Although some teachers (Deb McGowan among them) had done informal home visiting on their own, the formal training established best practices and helped teachers understand how to smoothly implement the visits with their own students and families.

The Parent Teacher Home Visit Project emphasizes home visiting’s role as bringing teachers and families together as equal partners “to build trust and form a relationship where they can take the time to share dreams, expectations, experiences, and tools regarding the child’s academic success.” Home visiting occurs only with families who are open to the visits. It is a familiar concept to those working in early childhood education, but the clear benefits of open communication between families and teachers are convincing more and more schools to adopt the practice. “When teachers visit families in their homes, teachers and families can build closer relationships that improve communication about a child’s progress,” says Dana Hepper, the Children’s Institute’s director of policy & program. “This strategy has the potential to ensure parents and teachers are true partners in their child’s education – which we know is a key factor in the success of children.”

Indeed, teacher home visiting is a key example of a strategy that is perfectly suited to statewide expansion. Home visits are evidenced-based and relatively easy to replicate in different settings. Home visiting also aligns with Oregon Head Start standards and practices. As Oregon’s preschool system broadens and deepens its scope, home visiting could be a key strategy bridging the early years of a child’s life with his or her experience in a K-12 setting. Partnerships (some burgeoning, some new) between nonprofits, county government, and school districts are producing more opportunities for teachers to get trained in the practice. Indeed, teachers at Yoncalla Elementary, the Earl Works initiative’s rural site, have recently received home visiting training and intend to kick off their home visits in January.

home-visit-12.3Maria Espino and her children during a visit with Earl Boyles second grade teacher Deb McGowan.Currently, Earl Boyles teachers are encouraged to do the three home visits each year – but Deb McGowan has set the ambitious goal of reaching the families of every single one of her students. In fact, McGowan is so committed to home visits, and was so encouraged by the June training, that she and Espino, along with CI’s Velasco, attended a Parent Teacher Home Visit Project conference in Boston in October.

In Boston, Espino says, she learned that “the teacher doesn’t do a visit because the student has a problem at school, but rather to make a connection between the home and the school. During the visit the teachers listen to parents about the future that they want for their child and about the child’s interests at school and at home.”  

McGowan and Espino were so moved by the goal of the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project to build trust and understanding between schools and families that they wanted to take what they had learned from the conference, implement it, and share it with other parents and teachers to encourage their participation in the program.

Indeed, it may not take too much convincing. McGowan says of the other teachers at Earl Boyles: “The teachers that went to the (Parent Teacher Home Visit Project) training are all really excited – very supportive. Everyone is really supportive of the teacher-parent relationship because it is all about the child. We are one big, happy community – whatever it takes to make that child succeed, we all want that to happen. We’ll go with different avenues to do that. (Doing so) gives the parents the confidence that we are not only there to support their child, but them as well.”

Espino agrees. “The home visits give me the confidence to become involved, as the mother of the household, in the education of my children,” she says.

But, in all this talk about home visits, dreams, and parent-teacher-child connections, we have forgotten one main question: What is Jose’s dream?

And the answer? Jose smiles bashfully when asked. His mother says his older brother wants to be a police officer someday. Jose smiles again. “Same thing,” he says.

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