On a recent Sunday, Andrea Hafiz spent an afternoon traveling through the neighborhoods surrounding Galtier Elementary, paying visits to a handful of her kindergarteners and their families.
Accompanied by her colleague, Darya Fidelman, Hafiz’s rounds included a stop at Alex Claiborne’s house in the Frogtown area of St. Paul. His mother, Bridgette Claiborne, 27, greeted them at the front door, dressed in her workout attire. Having just woken up from a nap, Alex trailed along, still wearing his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pajamas.
Seated in the living room, Raquel, his new gray kitten, found a lap to curl up on as they eased into conversation.
“What do you like about school?” Hafiz asked Alex.
After a few moments, she prompted, “How about Ms. Bosch and science?”
“Oh, I hear about her all the time,” Claiborne said, smiling.
Claiborne is a graduate of Como Park Senior High, with fond memories of school. A self-professed nerd, she’s eager to see her son succeed in the classroom. It’s her hope, she says, that Alex will be reading by the end of the year. To support this goal, she bought new wall hangings for his bedroom from the Dollar Tree — kindergarten and first-grade sight words, motivational quotes and more.
Once Hafiz and Claiborne had established this shared vision for Alex, they continued to search for common ground, talking about boxing, pet birds and out-of-state family.
For Hafiz — a white teacher who started her teaching career living in the suburbs, but who now lives within walking distance of her school — the home visits are an opportunity to better relate to her students and their families, a group that’s incredibly diverse.
The home visit program, a project locally run by the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, offers teachers — whether they live in the community they teach in, or commute in from the suburbs — the opportunity to better integrate into the St. Paul communities they’re serving to help improve student outcomes. In visiting parents on their own turf, teachers are able to confront assumptions they held about their students and their families. Likewise, parents are able communicate their aspirations for their children without the pressure of an evaluation looming overhead, or the intimidation of having to navigate the school system alone to advocate for their child.
The racial divide
During the 2015-16 school year, only 11 percent of the student body at Hafiz’s school was white. In contrast, 75 percent of the teachers at the school were white.
This ratio is not unique to Galtier. The St. Paul Public Schools district serves a student body that’s 78 percent students of color. Yet the district’s teacher core is predominantly white, with just 17 percent teachers of color. And the pattern extends statewide.
This racial imbalance poses equity questions that educators, advocates, and state legislators have been grappling with for years. Students of color are far less likely to have a teacher of color, missing out on the benefits of having an educational role model who can relate to them racially, culturally and linguistically.
There’s no reason white teachers who truly embrace equity in their teaching practices can’t serve students of color well. But, currently, racial bias still goes unchecked in the classroom. This helps perpetuate structures that allow for a stagnant achievement gap between students of color and their white peers. For instance, students of color are suspended at disproportionate rates compared to their white peers and are less likely to be encouraged to enroll in rigorous coursework offered for college credit.
In order to address these disparities, teachers must be willing to see and nourish the capacity in each student. In that regard, having a better understanding of the socioeconomic and cultural dynamics at play in a student’s home environment can give teachers the context they need to know when to challenge a student and when to ease up and offer support.
The St. Paul home visit program is an offshoot of a national program that got its start in Sacramento, California. What started out, locally, as six teachers at Johnson Elementary visiting 15 families in 2010 has grown into 1,430 home visits conducted by St. Paul educators last school year.
“We believe that no matter who you are, what life has dealt you … you know your child best,” Nick Faber, one of the founding home visit project teachers in St. Paul, said. “Our intent is not to go in and fix things. Our intent is to go in and listen and learn, get to know our parents better … and, in many cases, empower them.”
The program is built into the district’s teacher contract, which was renegotiated last spring. Teachers who choose to participate must agree to complete at least one home visit with a minimum of three families their first year, and at least one home visit with a minimum of eight families the following year.
Teachers are compensated a $50 stipend for each home visit, with a yearly cap of $2,500 for teachers in grades preK-4 and $3,000 for teachers grades 5-12. The total amount paid to teachers who conduct home visits cannot exceed $150,000 per school year.
“I think it’s very generous, to be honest,” Hafiz said when asked if she thought it was a fair amount.
More than half of all teachers in St. Paul earn more than $75,000 a year, a figure that’s about to increase as a result of the latest round of contract negotiations that secured teachers a 4 percent raise by July.
Hafiz made home visits to 10 of her students last year. Since she joined the program and completed the required training four years ago, her goal has always been to reach out to all of her families, she says, but it doesn’t always work out. In her experience, planned visits have been canceled because of families losing their homes, and some families simply aren’t comfortable hosting a teacher.
But when things do work out, even a brief visit can break down assumptions and provide valuable insight into a child’s home life.
During her home visit with Alex and his mom, Hafiz checked out the new wall hangings in Alex’s bedroom and noticed one of the quotes was about being a good friend.
“It’s obvious to me that she wants him to do well not just academically, but socially too,” Hafiz said, noting she now knows she has an ally in reinforcing good behavior in school.
This year, she’s already visited 11 different families. The focus of these initial visits is to build trust and open new lines of communication. When she revisits them in the spring, the focus will turn more toward discussing a shared strategy for supporting the student’s continued academic growth.
The voluntary nature of the program is a key to its success, says Faber, along with four other non-negotiables: Staff are trained and compensated, visits are done in pairs of teachers, the focus is on relationship building (not note taking, or assessment), and teachers cannot single out certain subgroups for home visits.
“Over the years, teaching has become this profession where we’ve stopped seeing kids as kids and more as data points,” Faber said. “Having this project that brings us back into the relationship aspect of the profession is really empowering, enriching and rejuvenating for our teachers.”
During the training sessions, teachers can vet fears or apprehensions they have about stepping outside of their comfort zones, whether it’s saying something that’s culturally insensitive to being greeted by a dog.
Brian Pearson, a black male educational assistant at Murray Middle School who works primarily with special-education students who have behavior issues, has a pretty good grasp on the reservations both parties — teachers, as well as parents — bring to the table. That’s why he was recruited by program organizers to help prepare teachers before they set out on their home visits.
“With teachers, their biggest fear is safety,” he said. “On the parents’ side of things … their biggest fear is, ‘Are they coming in to call child protective services? Coming in to see how we live, how we eat? That’s their biggest fear: ‘Why you wanna come in my house?’ That’s big for people of color.”
He’d been conducting home visits on his own time long before the program came to St. Paul because he’d experienced positive changes in student behavior once he started visiting some of his students at home. In offering to help with chores around the house, like raking leaves, he developed a deeper sense of accountability and respect with both his students and their parents. It’s an attainable goal for any teacher who’s willing to keep an open mind, he says.
“A lot of teachers go in with the perception like they’re gonna be poor, that the area they live in is going to be unsafe. And that’s not the case,” he said. “Or they might have had one conversation with the mom and she had a hard day at work or with the kids and she’s not very pleasant on the phone. But you go and she’s pleasant, the house is clean. And he or she is a nice person and you just caught them at a bad moment. I would say just go in with an open heart, open mind. And go and do what you’re there for — to build a relationship with the mom and kids to help the kids be successful at school and at home.”
When teacher participants debrief after their home visits, he says, they share insights they gained. For instance, a student who’s always asking for an extra breakfast or lunch at school may not be getting enough to eat at home. And a student who’s struggling to finish their homework may have a lot of siblings and no quiet space to work in at home.
In an effort to capture the impact of the program, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers published an evaluation in June 2014. Based on teacher surveys, where about half of participants responded, 76 percent said the home visits changed their assumptions about students’ families. Ninety-three percent said they learned something new about their student that they wouldn’t have realized in the classroom.
More generally, increased family engagement, through programs like this, is tied to reductions in suspensions and absenteeism, increased teacher job satisfaction, and improved student academic and social outcomes.
“One of my favorite things about doing the home visits is learning about the culture of the kids,” Hafiz said, fondly recalling a home visit to an Ethiopian family during the holidays where she and her student teacher were invited to join them for a traditional meal. “Even if I think we share the same culture, or something is in common, I feel like every time I go into a home visit, I learn something new.”