Teacher-parent partnerships begin at home

/ 24 August 2013 / eunice

Anthony Lonetree, Star Tribune, August 24, 2013 – The girls just returned from a trip to Maine, and now they were in the living room of their St. Paul home, listening as a teacher asked them and their parents a few friendly questions.

What’d they been up to this summer? Having fun? Learning anything?

The girls smiled. They nodded. They were excited. They had a teacher in their house.

School was weeks away, but Gina Hass, a kindergarten instructor at St. Paul’s American Indian Magnet School, was there to get an early start on a new year through a home visit. She promised Makenzie Coyne, 5, the youngest of the two girls, that they’d have a great year together in their new classroom — with three new computers — and she forged a bond with parents Rachel and Eamon Coyne.

In St. Paul, the home visit, built on the simple premise that teachers and parents can be better partners in a child’s education when they know one another, has grown in frequency in recent years. It has drawn national attention to the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, which is working both locally and regionally to advance a family-engagement model first developed in Sacramento, Calif.

Last week, NBC’s “Today” show cameras rolled as St. Paul leaders trained about 40 teachers in the Columbia Heights Public Schools, which plans to pilot home visits at two schools this year. There was role-playing and lessons in program fundamentals.

Go in pairs, trainees were told, because parents need multiple entry points to a school. Leave the notebooks, the pencils, the papers, at home. You’re there to listen. When calling to arrange visits, select families randomly. Word can get around if you’re singling out struggling students. Most important, come away knowing at least this: What are the parent’s “hopes and dreams” for his or her child?

At the Coyne residence near Lake Phalen, Hass and her colleague, Miriam Foote, a preschool teaching assistant, got a quick look at the girls’ toy room. They met Bogo, the family cat. And after taking seats in the living room, it didn’t take long for Hass to pose the hopes and dream question. So what did mom want for Makenzie?

“I see she is shy at school,” said Rachel Coyne, an Athabascan Indian and Yup’ik Eskimo. “I am hoping she can come out of her shell … it’s so surprising for us … she is our vibrant child.”

With that, Hass turned to Makenzie, and said: “You can be my computer helper.”

The little girl, her face framed by long hair and bangs, nodded.

A deal done.

Success in Sacramento

Home visits, and the $50 stipends that come with them, are built into St. Paul’s teachers’ contract and are likely to be discussed in upcoming talks. The federation wants to remove the total cap on payments — $50,000 was available districtwide during 2012-13 — as more instructors embrace the practice. In three years, visits have grown from about 12 in 2010-11 to more than 200 in 2012-13, said Nick Faber, a science specialist and union official who has led the local training effort.

Sacramento launched its program about 15 years ago and has seen increased student attendance rates and test scores and decreased suspension and expulsion rates, said Carrie Rose, executive director of the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project. She said last week that the model now was being used in 16 states.

In Sacramento, home visits were touted as a way to “end the cycle of blame” between families and school staff members. In St. Paul, the tone isn’t as edgy. But Faber said St. Paul needed a model like Sacramento’s that views parents as assets. In the past, he said, a school might have a “literacy night” to provide tips to parents on how to bring up reading scores. Without any prior efforts to build trust and respect, he said, the message could come across as: You’re not doing things right at home.

And parents won’t show.

As part of negotiations, he said, he hopes to persuade the district to begin compiling individual student data to show who’s been visited and what their parents had to say, especially about their hopes and dreams.

Stories of academic turnarounds are anecdotal for now. At the American Indian Magnet School, Hass said one girl whose home she visited last year improved after she and her mother got to know Hass, and social anxieties that were a block of sorts were stripped away.

At the time, Hass was a preschool teacher, and she knew Makenzie and her parents then. At their home, she shared with Rachel Coyne how she wanted to create a community of parents, and might use her $50 stipends to pay for a picnic or ice cream social.

You never know what connections you can make, she said.

Hass, as it turned out, is an East Side native herself. And her grandmother, she told Rachel Coyne, happened to live on N. Chamber Street, right across the alley from the Coyne family home.