March 7, 2016

Alia Woolfe and her kindergarten class at Lincoln Park Elementary School

Alia Woolfe had been teaching a phonics lesson to her kindergarten class when she stopped for a visit, later that day, at the home of one of her students. The seventh-year teacher was surprised and enlivened by what she saw when she entered the house. Everywhere she looked, objects were affixed with a letter of the alphabet matching the first sound in the item’s name. It was a sure sign, Woolfe thought, that the student’s mother had been working with him to master the classroom lesson.

“It gave me an opportunity to encourage and also congratulate them,” Woolfe said. “One of the things that is most important as a teacher is to build that kind of positive relationship. For my students and their parents, I want them to know that I am their teacher, but I’m also their champion.”

Woolfe has carried that message into the homes of half of the 26 students in her kindergarten class at Lincoln Park Elementary School in the David Douglas School District this year. She has challenged herself to visit them all before school is out.

“Kindergarten is often a family’s first experience with school,” Woolfe said. “A home visit can relieve any fears that kids or families have.”

A pilot program in Multnomah County aims to ensure that teachers like Woolfe, who can remember a time in the not-too-distant past when she could go an entire year without meeting a child’s parent, continue to have the opportunity to visit students and their parents at home before and during the school year. The program is aimed at promoting successful kindergarten transitions for children and their families.

Last year, Multnomah County, with funding from Social Venture Partners Portland and Early Learning Multnomah, began offering grants to SUN Community Schools, whose teachers participated in a training program offered by the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project. The Sacramento-based nonprofit offers resources and educational workshops to teachers and school administrators that advance a relationship-based, home-visit model of family and teacher engagement in public schools.

In Multnomah County, the training was offered as part of Kindergarten Counts, a community-wide campaign that brings together early childhood and school partners to increase parental involvement in a child’s learning, improve kindergarten attendance and boost overall success in school.

Alia Woolfe high fives one of her pupils at Lincoln Park Elementary School.

The broader kindergarten readiness and outreach effort begins with encouraging families to register for school by June and also includes the school-based Early Kindergarten Transition Program in the summer. This effort supports programs for students and families, focusing primarily on children with no preschool experience, children who participated in Head Start, children of color or those from a culturally-specific community and/or those who receive early childhood special education services.

Woolfe said meeting her students and their parents at home has provided her with a greater understanding of her students’ needs in the classroom.

“You definitely get a perspective of where your student is coming from. And I get to see where my kids are, what their challenges are,” Woolfe said. “It also gives me a time to encourage parents and also to congratulate them.”

During the 2015-2016 school year, 19 schools in 4 school districts participated in the county’s inaugural home visit program. Participating teachers visited the homes of more than 580 kindergarten students in Multnomah County.

Although individual schools and principals have encouraged or supported home visits over the years, there had not been a coordinated effort to make it a school system-wide practice until 2014, said Mark Holloway, executive director of Social Venture Partners Portland. That first year, SVP provided grants to seven schools to support teachers who visited kindergarten students and their families at home.

SVP, which describes itself as a venture philanthropy fund, enlists individual donors to invest money or personal expertise in community organizations with the goal of generating a social improvement as a return on its investment. Specifically, the fund’s mission is to help children transition into kindergarten by providing education-related support services to kids and their families.

SVP partnered with Multnomah County in 2015 to expand the home visit program to 19 SUN Schools at the start of the current school year.

The county called in the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project (PTHVP) to provide training and resources to SUN community school teachers and administrators. The nonprofit trained over 110  teachers, principals, other school staff, SUN site managers and nonprofit partners in a model that PTHVP executive director Carrie Rose said “deepens and expands their home engagement.”

Rose said the training, which lasts about three hours and includes role playing activities, is intended to help teachers learn to build trust and form relationships with their students’ parents. In  support of that goal, visits do not have a set agenda. And they are definitely not intended to communicate a problematic issue, as has historically been the case when a teacher visits a student’s home, Rose said.

“In traditional family engagement, there is a lot of push out and not a lot of relationship building,” Rose said.

Home visits aren’t a new phenomenon. But as schools are increasingly seeking new ways to improve themselves, more have turned to home visits instead of simply replacing a principal, revamping curriculum or requiring teachers to produce better test scores, Rose said.

“If you do not invest in equal measure in all of the components of the school, you’re not going to see the outcomes.”

In Multnomah County, the hope is that having teachers meet with parents on their terms and at their homes will not only foster greater school engagement, but will also increase attendance, decrease behavior challenges in the classroom and improve academic achievement.

“We’re really interested in the outcomes,” Holloway said. “We want to know if we got there or not.”

Hannah Snyder, a counselor at Lincoln Park Elementary School who also conducted home visits this year, said she already is seeing the impact of this year’s home visits in the form of more parent volunteers at the school.

“The more we can facilitate this kind of dialogue with families and communities, I think it really improves the spirit of the school community and the neighborhood,” Snyder said.