After a simple knock on the front door, there was a shriek of excitement and a joyful pitter patter of footsteps from inside the home. After a brief struggle opening the door, five year-old Lydia peered around the door with a wide smile and quickly ran away giggling in her brightly striped dress. Today was the day she had been waiting for: home visit day.
Waiting on the front step in front of the now open door stood Harrison Elementary kindergarten teacher Sarah Parsons, with a basket of “goodies” in hand, and education assistant Kathy Putman.
The pair were there as part of Harrison’s home visit program. Before the school year starts the kindergarten teachers at Harrison visit the homes of each of their students to create a bond with the student and their family that starts before the first day of school. In this 20 minute visit, the goal is to form a relationship with the family and ease any anxious or nervous feelings going into the upcoming school year.
By accomplishing those goals, the hope is then to then use this relationship to have a relationship throughout the school year with this family and to fight against chronic absenteeism at the kindergarten level. According to recent school year data from the Oregon Department of Education, 22 percent of kindergarten students in South Lane School District were considered chronically absent meaning they missed over 10 percent of the school year.
While there is no magical solution to fixing all of these issues in one fell swoop, home visits are an attempt at creating a foundation for student success.
“A lot of parents will ask why you do [home visits]. What I have been telling families is that it really makes your child feel special. We are coming to see them. We are coming to their environment, that’s how important they are to us,” says kindergarten teacher Stephanie Black.
“It opens up communication, it builds those relationships right off the bat. And you are in a one on one setting where they can ask you questions that they may not get to ask you when there are 10 other families around.”
Back on the living room floor, Parsons is sitting on the carpet with her shoes off. Lydia and Lydia’s mom, Danielle Hirschi, are now comfortable next to her on the ground. Parsons hands Lydia a book of the alphabet that included how to sign it in sign language and the two begin to talk. They go over favorite colors, how many letters are in Lydia’s name and Parsons has Lydia sign her “autograph book” that has the name of all the kids from her home visits it in it. Through the entire time Parsons is in the home, her focus is locked in on her new student and the family of that student. “I will not look around [the house],” says Parsons. “I keep my eyes in eye contact with the people the entire time. Very intentional.”
This visit is packed with information for everyone involved. Lydia gets to see her new teacher in a comfortable environment while receiving undivided attention; Hirschi gets to meet her daughter’s teacher and is encouraged to ask any and all questions (“no silly questions” Parsons reminds her); Parsons gets to learn about the family while doing some slightly subtle sleuthing of the student’s current abilities.
“We do some very covert assessments on the kids… Can you read your name, do you know what it looks like? Do you know the letters in your name? Can you count those letters in your name? Can you write your name?” Parsons explains to me before the visit.
The visit continues and Lydia expresses her excitement for homework, explains how a scar on her left hand can be used to remind her which hand to hold a pencil with, and more excitement at the prospect of having three recesses in one day (“Three recesses?” she cheers. “So one time when recess is over we get another turn and another and another one?”). Parsons then shifts the conversations to Hirschi about logistics of getting to and from school, how to best educate her daughter and any concerns that she may have. With that the meeting concludes; another successful home visit.
“I was just telling family and friends from Indiana and Utah [about home visits]. They’ve never heard of home visits ever. And I love it. I love it,” said Hirschi. “Everyone kept saying, ‘Why doesn’t everyone else do this?’ And I was like yeah, spread the word.”
The goal of each home visits is to get to each home but if home does not work, or if there is a level of discomfort, then the group can meet on the porch, at a park or if necessary, at school. But the goal, for the third year in a row, is to meet at the future student’s home.
The home visits at Harrison started three years ago when the shift was made from half-day kindergarten to full-day kindergarten. “When we were moving into full day we said we want to do this,” said Parsons. “We really just looked at what can we do to set the families up… to be successful. We thought that there would be a lot of question or anxiety around kids being in school all day and this would be one way that we would be able to combat that.”
The relationships jumped out to a good start but the full-day was too much for these excited and anxious five-year old kindergarteners. “Three years ago when we started the full day kids were melting in the afternoon. They were tired, they were hungry. They couldn’t make it,” said Black. Since then, Harrison has changed their approach and now utilizes half-days at the beginning of the year to ease these five-year-olds into a full day of school. Last year they had three weeks of half-days and this year they will have two. The kindergarten teachers express that in a perfect world they would like this half-day period until the first set of conferences in mid-October, the teachers are, for the moment, hanging on tightly to what they have.
“Last year was very successful; it was a smooth transition,” said Parsons. “It’s not the most convenient for families, it isn’t and we recognize that. But we are so passionate about the benefit that we are going to be inconvenienced for two weeks but we really feel like this is going to set your student up for success.”
The kindergarten classes also start the year a week after the rest of the school in order to give the teachers time to go on these home visits so that they can, like they did this year, meet with every one of the 67 families one-on-one before the school year begins. “We’re really proud of our team for being committed to the home visit model,” said Harrison Elementary School principal Heidi Brown.
“It’s a lot of energy, it’s a lot of time, it takes you away from classroom prep a lot; so it’s a commitment that they really believe in and we totally support. Home visits are just by and large are just fantastic. All research would show that it builds that relationship and builds community and trust early on. And for kindergarten it’s a great place to have that foundation.”