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Home visits offer students, parents and teachers a chance to build better relationships

Julia Schaefer (from left), Jodi Timmersman, Angela Pioro and Alyssa Schaefer share a laugh during a meeting in the Schaefers’ home. Julia Schaefer is a seventh grader at Lincoln Park Middle School, where Timmersman teaches U.S. studies and Pioro teaches English. The two teachers were making a home visit to the Schaefers as part of new program to help teachers know their students better. Steve Kuchera /

Julia Schaefer saw her English and U.S. studies teachers in class on Wednesday, and that night sat across from them at her dining room table.

It's not as weird as it sounds. A relationship-building tactic, Lincoln Park Middle School has begun sending teachers out into the homes of their students. The teachers arrived at the Schaefers' West Duluth house with no homework to give or forms to fill out. But they did want to learn more about Julia.

Parents often see teachers as authority figures, and their only contact with them may have been for something negative about their child, said Lincoln Park social worker John Nachtsheim. "Now they are in their home, their territory. They see (the teacher) as another human being and someone who cares about their child," he said. "There is no way this is not going to benefit the student."

Reaching families

Lincoln Park was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation for the parent-teacher home visits project as part of the foundation's efforts to narrow the "opportunity gap" between kids living in poverty and those who aren't. But the school's efforts aren't aimed solely at poverty-stricken families — and not targeting any one group is a tenet of the project. It's trying to reach out to all kids and their families through the voluntary program, and fits neatly into efforts to make Lincoln Park a "community school" which offers social and health services and family support.

The idea is to learn more about what parents want for their kids and what kids want for themselves, said teacher Katie Oliver. That has the effect of keeping already successful kids on the same path and helping those less so to become more successful in school.

Lincoln Park teacher Jodi Timmersman laughs as student Julia Schaefer makes a face during a home visit. Steve Kuchera / DNTThe visits also make it easier to reach parents at a school where 25 percent of families don't have a way to get to the school which, built high on a hill, is also not a destination for the Duluth Transit Authority. And once that connection is made, teachers say, it will be easier for parents to reach out in the future.

A group of Lincoln Park employees and a parent attended a national conference on the effort, led by the Sacramento, Calif.-based Parent Teacher Home Visits. Several more employees have been trained by the St. Paul hub of the group, which came to Lincoln Park in the fall. And further training is planned for other district schools, so the process of linking elementary to middle to high school can begin.

The visits work like this: Teachers go in pairs to a student's house, after a call has been made to a family to agree to it. At least one of the teachers must be trained, and the visit is only about relationship-building. Teachers are compensated for their time, one of the non-negotiables set by the national group. This year the grant helps pay for that; going forward, Nachtsheim said another source would be needed, but would be a nominal amount.

Some teachers are concerned about the time commitment, or have reservations about the idea of going into kids' homes. Communicating through email and phone or seeing parents at conferences isn't the same thing, teachers said. There are fears of the unknown and fears they will get blamed for a struggling student, Oliver said. "Calling parties" have been held at the school to make it easier for teachers to have the initial contact with parents about coming to visit.

Teacher Shonda Peller said her and a fellow teacher's first visit was "nerve-wracking."

"There was no script, nothing to guide me," she said. "I didn't want to go to someone's house and have them feel like I judged them or was there for a hidden agenda."

Parents are probably nervous, too, Oliver said, and they should know there is no expectation to clean, to tour a house or serve dinner.

Peller's visit with a family who "made it really fun for us" went well, and now she says reaching out that way is going to be "pivotal" in getting more parents and kids involved with school. The hope is to eventually have teachers visit each student's home twice a year.

A voice for parents

The home visit concept isn't new, said Miesha Sanders, regional coordinator for the St. Paul hub of Parent Teacher Home Visits, but the way the national group organizes their visits is unique because it was developed by parents.

"Usually when it comes to education, everything is top down; parents don't have a say-so," Sanders said. "This is giving parents a voice and giving parents a way to show them they can advocate for their children."

Julia Schaefer and her mother visit with two of the seventh-grader’s teachers in the family’s home. Steve Kuchera / DNTThe St. Paul school district has had the program for six years, and this past fall went on 1,100 home visits, Sanders said, pointing to research that says it can improve academic performance. It's helped build more parent leaders and more trust in schools, and changed mindsets of teachers and parents, she said.

Teachers get to know the family's situation, and that kind of background knowledge helps a teacher understand why a child might be having a bad day, and they can talk to them on a different level, Sanders said.

If homework isn't done, teachers might assume the parents don't care.

"But maybe the parents don't speak English and can't help with it," she said. "This helps break down implicit bias and assumptions parents have about teachers and teachers have about parents."

Parental engagement has been a key part of successful school systems across the country, said Holly Sampson, president of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, and what Lincoln Park wanted to do fit with the opportunity gap work of the foundation.

"The other real interest of ours is the importance of seeing the child in the context of the family, and how much more helpful a teacher can be in understanding the entire family and the child's place in the family," she said.

'Different people in a good way'

Julia Schaefer waved from a picture window to her teachers Angela Pioro and Jodi Timmersman as they approached her house Wednesday. Once inside and seated, Pioro asked Julia and her mom, Alyssa Schaefer, about their "hopes and dreams" for Julia, and what the school could do to help.

They learned Julia was interested in pursuing a job in the information technology field like her mom, that she enjoyed drawing and was a talented soccer player. Alyssa, clearly already involved in the school life of Julia, was happy with Lincoln Park, she said, and how well teachers accommodate Julia's needs related to an attention deficit disorder.

Julia appeared to enjoy the attention being paid to her and her interests, and by the end of the visit was teasing Pioro about being a Green Bay Packers fan.

She later voiced her approval of the time spent, and said she learned of her teachers that "outside of school, they seemed like different people in a good way."

Alyssa Schaefer said she was grateful for the chance to talk about ways to help her daughter.

"Keeping those communication lines open is essential for our kids and their progress," she said.

Pioro and Timmersman liked seeing mother and daughter interact, they said, and getting to know Julia outside of the classroom.

In class, teachers are always short on time, and this is a way to build relationships despite that, Timmersman said.

On a grander scale, there are hopes that such a program can improve graduation rates and lead to more kids living and working in the area, Lincoln Park's Nachtsheim said.

The more people there are engaged in a kid's life from all parts of a community, he said, the more likely those things will happen.

"I think it's going to change how we do things here," he said.