With kindergarten, many children experience their first taste of independence. They get a glimpse for a few hours a day of what it’s like when their parents aren’t around. Little do they know that this will become their natural reality for the next 13 years.
For the next 13 years, students and teachers will change every year. And most parents will only speak to their child’s teacher for a 10-minute block of time every four-and-a-half months about their student’s progress.
In 1998 a group of parents in Sacramento, California decided that this scenario wasn’t good enough for them. These parents wanted the teachers to develop a relationship with their children where they could work together with the teacher. This group of parents gave birth to the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project.
In 2010, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) joined the program and got trained. Currently headed by SPFT VP Nick Faber, Minnesota’s chapter of the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project (PTHVP) has trained over 650 St. Paul Public School staff to do more than just visit homes, but also to build relationships with the students’ parents.
“It’s a whole lot easier to say, ‘We need to get to know each other’ and begin to understand what [parents and teachers] value,” says Faber. Considering that parent engagement is a key component to student success, Faber challenges everyone to think about “how parent engagement can affect student success.”
Farber says that there is a difference between parent engagement and parent involvement. According to him, in parent involvement you lead with your mouth, but with parent engagement you lead with your ears, so the model resembles this principle.
The PTHVP works off of a two-visit model. The first visit takes place in the summer or fall and is all about the teachers listening without taking any notes. The second visit usually takes place during the spring and has an emphasis of sharing. All visits are voluntary — the entire program is completely voluntary — and school personnel are required to travel in pairs.
One of the St. Paul Public School sites leading the initiative is the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary school with over half the school’s families visited thus far this school year. According to school Principal Angelica Van Iperen, the initiative “came from the ground up.”
“The idea is that we are learning from the families. [We are] really learning from their first teacher — their parents — and learning to see them in their success environment — their home environment — and seeing the dreams their parents have for them. [However], we had this unexpected counter-narrative.”
Wellstone social worker and school mom Julianne Hinchcliffe explains that home visits broke teachers’ assumptions of their students’ home lives. This is a highlight of the local program as a whole.
“[It’s all about] acknowledging that the parents are the experts and we’ve got to learn from them,” says Hinchcliffe. Principal Iperen backs her up, saying, “Once [parents] saw that it was truly us learning from them, then they got excited and started calling us.”
While Wellstone is a more developed site, Obama Elementary is one of the up-and-coming sites. Obama pre-school teacher Starette Taylor-Cooper speaks highly of the program. Having moved to Minnesota from Detroit, Michigan in 2012, where she participated in home visits as well, she says the significant difference is the training component.
“We were not properly trained [in Detroit],” Cooper says. She speaks on the numerous visits that she participated in while in Detroit wishing she had a colleague accompany her. As for asking parents what hopes and dreams they had for their child, “I never heard of that,” she says of her Detroit experience.
Faber, Iperen and Cooper all acknowledge that the home visits adds another layer of accountability to the relationship between teachers, students and parents. Not only are students better behaved, Cooper also says that parents are more understanding of classroom needs. She recalls sending home letters requesting supplies for the students and one of her parents going above and beyond to ensure that all 34 students had the necessary supplies to succeed.
Nick Faber says parent engagement leads to students’ success. As a result of his work with the SPFT’s branch of the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project, it has received recognition locally and nationally via the Today Show.
Aside from the media recognition, the Twin Cities recently hosted the National Conference this past summer where Faber accepted a seat on the national board. Yet there is still work to be done, and Faber will be the first say so.