McDowell County Schools, one of the lowest-performing districts in West Virginia, is the first in the state to apply the practice of home visits to selected students in every grade, including high school. The visits are a proactive way to build relationships with families and students rather than a reactive attempt to address a problem, according to The Hechinger Report.
Though home visits have proven to be an effective way to help provide infants and toddlers with a stronger educational foundation, district leaders are hoping home visits with older students, even in high school, will encourage families to partner with the district to boost graduation and college attendance rates — especially as West Virginia rolls out a campaign designed to encourage at least 60% of adults ages 25-64 to have earned a degree or certificate by 2030.
In recent years, McDowell County Schools has embedded health clinics in its two high schools, provided in-school dental and mental health care at all grade levels, hired graduation coaches and mentors for high schools, and established “care closets” with items for students in need, but district leaders felt is was time to establish a home-visiting program similar to the Parent Teacher Home Visit program in Sacramento, California, which has seen anecdotal success.
In times when schools were smaller and more community-based, teachers often knew the families of students because they lived among them. However, teachers today must make more of an effort to connect with families in ways that not only convey basic information but also build relationships and educational partnerships. This effort can reap benefits for teachers, students and their families.
Home visits, if conducted properly — and not only if there is a problem — help teachers make those connections by allowing them to see students in their home environments. By seeing the challenges students face, the support system that is available to them, and the outside factors that shape their perceptions, teachers can gain a better understanding of what motivates students and what support they can offer to help them succeed.
Existing research shows the value of home visits in preparing young children for success in school, but now attention is being focused on how home visits can help older students prepare for success in life — especially in high-poverty areas and in schools with a large number of students who are culturally or linguistically diverse.
This strategy is not limited to West Virginia and California. The Parent Teacher Home Visit Project (PTHVP) trained almost 5,000 teachers in this approach in 2014 alone. In partnership with the National Education Association's Priority Schools, the initiative has also been used in Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington, and at two of the NEA Foundation’s “Closing the Achievement Gaps Initiative” sites in Seattle and Springfield, Massachusetts. Studies of this approach have indicated improvements in test scores, graduation rates, and student behavior, the NEA reports.
Home visits are not without their downsides. They do require extra funding for teacher training and compensation for time in the field. Visits are voluntary and must be scheduled, an activity that requires extra time as well. And, though teachers travel in pairs for the visits, safety is still a concern as teachers approach an uncontrolled environment.
School districts need to make sure that teachers take adequate precautions and feel free to leave a situation that appears unsafe. It might also take time for teachers to see the visits as a way to build relationships with families, not to judge their homes and lifestyles. With the proper training and tools, home visits can be a powerful way to connect and form partnerships with families.