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Why This District Meets Parents at Home

Yahaira Rodriguez wants to be a teacher when she grows up.

At home, the 5th grader uses her younger brother’s stuffed animals to create an imaginary classroom, taking over her mom’s office to teach lessons. She tells her “students” to be quiet and grades imaginary papers.

At her real school, Denver’s Swansea Elementary, she’s become a strong leader, helping classmates with assignments, occasionally asserting herself as the “boss” in lines and during activities, and building friendly relationships with her teachers.

Her mother, Karen Torres, says her daughter has transformed in her five years at school from a shy, quiet student into a leader. Her teachers are impressed by her confidence. They said as much in a recent home visit they had with Torres to discuss Yahaira.

“We all are proud of her,” Amada Babb, Yahaira’s ELA-Spanish teacher, told Torres during the visit. “Thank you for everything you do at home, because it’s obviously working.”

“She’s really excited and it makes me happy,” Torres said during the visit over Zoom. “She’s involved. That’s one of my main goals, that she’s involved because it opens doors for her.”

Torres is among several thousand parents and caregivers who participate in the Denver school district’s Parent-Teacher Home Visits program. Since 2010-11, teachers throughout the district have met with families—once in the fall and once in the spring—to talk about parents’ and caregivers’ goals for their children and how they can partner with teachers to achieve them.

Hundreds of other schools across more than half the country are doing the same.

In Denver, district leaders say the visits are key to building better connections with parents and caregivers, especially as they manage a historic influx of families new to their schools, most of whom are recent arrivals to the United States. The visits help teachers build trusting relationships with families, get parents and caregivers connected to resources like food assistance and housing help, provide concrete ways for parents and caregivers to support student learning, and make them aware of what’s happening at school.

Denver’s approach is promising as districts strive to build trust with their communities and make parents real partners in their children’s education, a recipe that ultimately can boost student achievement and engagement.

“The ideal [family engagement practice] is where a teacher is literally meeting a family before the school year or right at the very beginning of the school year with the sole goal of better understanding that child, that student, through the lens of their parents,” said Vito Borrello, executive director of the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement.

Over 3,000 new students have enrolled in the Denver district since June 2023, which has in recent years been dealing with the effects of declining enrollment. The home visits, which teachers aim to do at the start of the school year and in the weeks after a new student enrolls, have been key to getting those students’ parents and caregivers connected to the school system and other resources they need to acclimate to a new country, said Adella Arredondo, executive director of the district’s family and community engagement department.

For many of the newly arrived families, the visit is the first time anyone has explained the American school system to them, in their language, in a place where they’re comfortable.

The home visits also enable the district to refer families to its six regional community hubs that opened last school year. The hubs operate out of elementary schools spread across the city, providing a central location for families and community members to pick up food and clothing, find legal help with housing and job loss, and access medical care. They’re also sites for Spanish and English GED courses, and they host child care and early literacy programs for infants and toddlers.

The goal of all this work is ultimately to break down barriers and build trust, Arredondo said.

While Denver’s full-fledged home visit program might be out of reach for many districts due to financial reasons and limited staff capacity, parent engagement experts say schools can still form trusting relationships with families through other strategies—such as focus groups and listening sessions held off campus—to hear from parents and show they’re listening.

Bridging the gap

Families approach their children’s schooling from all kinds of backgrounds. Some adults had negative experiences with school. Others may not be familiar with the American education system. Some may have never been able to speak their native language with their child’s educators.

The home visiting program aims to address those challenges, Arredondo said.

Arredondo, a daughter of immigrants who attended Denver schools, has vivid memories of sitting in parent-teacher conferences acting as a translator between her teachers and parents, while her teachers gave feedback that didn’t always paint her in the best light.

“I had to tell my mom that the teacher said I talked a lot in class,” Arredondo said. “[I knew] that when I told my mom that in Spanish, I was going to get scolded. … But that has been the experience for so many of our students.”

Arredondo can’t remember a time when her parents felt as if they could ask her teachers questions about the school system or how their daughter was doing. She was always the intermediary, required to make sure all the adults in her life were on the same page.

That experience is what made her want to work in family engagement and change that dynamic.

“Just as I came back to say I want to make the system better, there are people who had the same experiences I did … and it shows up in a different way and perhaps they’re more resistant to partnering with our schools,” she said.

Denver’s home visit program has been integral to changing how the district interacts with parents, Arredondo said. It works with the Sacramento, Calif.-based nonprofit Parent Teacher Home Visits, which trains teachers in effective home visits and helps districts implement visiting programs.

The nonprofit started with a group of parents and teachers in Sacramento, looking to bridge the divide between the two groups. Now, it’s operating in nearly 400 schools across 29 states; over 50,000 educators have been trained in the model.

The home visit model changes how parents and teachers feel about each other. In a 2017 study of the model, in which RTI International researchers interviewed 175 participants, including both educators and parents, parents and caregivers said the home visits helped them realize that interactions with educators “did not have to be negative or uncomfortable.” They found themselves viewing educators as relatable people rather than “distant authority figures,” the report said.

Teachers said the program helped them better understand parents and combat a “deficit mindset,” in which they assumed unengaged parents didn’t care. The program also helped teachers grow their appreciation for students’ cultures. They were less likely to approach discipline from a punitive approach after participating in home visits, the study said.

It would be easy to confuse parent-teacher home visits with parent-teacher conferences, but there are key differences that make it an effective tool for building relationships rather than a basic check-in.

The Parent Teacher Home Visits nonprofit has a set of “non-negotiable core practices” for the visits, said Gina Martinez-Keddy, the program’s executive director.

The visits are completely voluntary. No teachers or parents are required to participate, and teachers who do earn extra pay—in Denver, it’s $35 an hour for the teachers participating in visits, a rate the district has negotiated with the local teachers’ union.

So far this year, Denver teachers have done visits with over 6,000 families, said Brittany Newswanger, the family, school, and community partnerships manager for the 88,000-student district.

“The focus is about building relationships of trust and partnership,” Martinez-Keddy said. “If these visits were ever mandated, it defeats the purpose. If somebody really doesn’t want to be there, how are you going to really build that kind of trusting relationship?”

The visits must always take place at a location that is best for the family. Ideally, teachers travel to students’ homes, but they can also meet at a local park or coffee shop or visit via Zoom.

More Denver parents are opting for Zoom following the pandemic, Newswanger said. In some cases, parents don’t want educators in their homes out of fear of judgment, she said. It doesn’t matter much where the visit takes place as long as it’s clear that the teacher is coming to meet the parents, not the other way around.

“We’re always asking the family to come to the school, come to this event, come and do these things, and this is an opportunity for the educator to say, ‘Let me come to you,’” Newswanger said. “‘Let me see where you live, let me see your community, let me meet your family members, let me meet you and your student in a one-on-one setting where we can get to know each other more.’”

The nonprofit also expects teachers to conduct visits in pairs, but with no more than three so parents don’t feel outnumbered. Usually, one teacher is more familiar with the visits than the other, and both generally work with the student.

In Yahaira’s meeting, her 5th-grade teacher, Jose Velez, was joined by art teacher Emily Hammack and Babb, the ELA-Spanish teacher. (Swansea is a dual-language school so Yahaira receives reading instruction in both English and Spanish.)

Starting with hopes and dreams

Torres would not have known about her daughter’s dreams of becoming a teacher if not for the home visits.

The 5th grader shared that aspiration during the family’s first home visit with Velez and Hammack in the fall.

Every home visit starts with that question: What are your hopes and dreams for your child?

It’s part of the final and most important rule for the home visits—they must not be punitive. The goal, Newswanger and Martinez-Keddy said, is for teachers and parents to get to know each other, and there’s no better way to do that than to start with their common interest, the student, who attends each visit.

The discussions about hopes and dreams can be short. Maybe parents just want their child to read. Maybe the student aspires to a specific profession, like Yahaira.

“The whole point of that is to align our goals so when you’re at conferences, it can be more of an intentional conversation about, ‘We already know what goals we’re working toward. Let’s address those while we’re here,’” Newswanger said.

The home visits have made Torres feel more connected and comfortable with the school. She’s been participating since Yahaira started 1st grade. Initially, she was a little unsure about the visit, since Yahaira already had parent-teacher conferences, but she quickly realized that the home visit setting allowed her to be more candid and open with her daughter’s teachers.

The connection Torres has built with the school has been especially important, as Yahaira is her oldest and she’ll have two more children going through Swansea over the next 10 years.

“You walk in the school, and you feel like you know most people around there, so I feel that you get to know them outside the education,” Torres said.

Understanding students better

In her first year of teaching kindergarten at Valverde Elementary School, Paz Torres—no relation to Karen Torres—was shy around her students’ parents.

She was new to teaching and the thought of telling parents that their children were struggling was terrifying. So when another kindergarten teacher approached Torres about participating in home visits, she was anxious.

Her nerves were quickly calmed when she first entered a student’s home. She was greeted by parents who were genuinely interested in their child’s academics. They made her food and she felt at home.

It didn’t take long for Torres to start opening up about her own life, relating with families about shared struggles and backgrounds. She quickly realized that parents had misconceptions about teachers and their lives.

“A lot of parents hold us on a pedestal,” Paz Torres said. “They think that we’re not the same. I’m like, ‘girl, I’m the same. I live in an apartment.’ The parents are like, ‘oh, I thought you lived in a mansion.’”

Paz Torres found that she could relate to her students’ parents. She grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in a family of 14. The school where she teaches is a Title I school with many new arrivals from Central and South America.

Velez, Yahaira’s 5th grade teacher at Swansea, said the program helped him better appreciate his students’ family lives. It’s easy to blame low engagement on a lack of interest from parents, but when you’re in their home you realize the unique circumstances that might make it hard for them to attend a school event or a parent-teacher conference, he said.

Velez recalled one instance last year when a typically high-performing student started to struggle in class. Velez thought it was strange, but didn’t have a clue about what was happening at home. That is, until he learned at a home visit with the family that the student’s father had been seriously injured.

The father was out of work and the mother was picking up extra shifts, so Velez’s student had to live with relatives. Knowing the student’s circumstances made Velez a better teacher, he said.

“We have to understand that part to be a better teacher inside the classroom,” Velez said. “If we don’t know what happened inside the family, we cannot help [with what] they need.”

Building a network of resources

When home visits reveal that families are struggling with homelessness, food insecurity, or navigating the complexities of a new country and school system, Denver teachers refer them to one of the community hubs.

Such support was on display last month at one of those community hubs, John Amesse Elementary School.

Parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles participated in Spanish and English language GED classes while others shopped for groceries in a spare classroom that had been transformed into a market-style pantry. Other parents read to infants in the library and met with early literacy experts to learn about activities they could do with their kids at home.

They met with the hub’s staff, who are separate from the school’s principal and teachers. Whenever a new family walks through the door, the staff give them a questionnaire and interview them to assess their needs, said Esmeralda De La Oliva, the director of the district’s community hubs.

“In our schools, we have many students that are living with an aunt, with a grandma, with a neighbor,” De La Oliva said. “They’re going through a lot of different life cases, and we need to really be able to support everybody in the community so that our community thrives.”

Last year, the district graduated 28 moms through its GED program and expects to graduate 50 more parents at the end of this school year. The district estimates it served 3,000 families last year through the community hubs.

The hubs have allowed Denver to expand its community engagement work beyond home visits, Arredondo said. Now, when families discuss a concern in their life during a home visit, the district can help them with real resources.

That builds a connection between the families and the school, De La Oliva said. Families aren’t afraid to come to the school building when they need help, and teachers feel more equipped to support students when their basic needs are met, she said.

Never saying no

Over the past decade, Denver has established itself as a model district for parent and family engagement. The Colorado education department has recognized the city’s schools for their efforts to connect parents and families to mental health support and other resources.

The district is also well funded, with a $1.5 billion general fund budget and over $300 million in COVID-19 relief funds. Of those general funds, $6.5 million is allocated to the district’s central office family and community engagement staff, according to the district’s 2023 budget.

But even with a large budget, the district faces challenges. It’s difficult to reach the families of every newly arrived student, and, like all districts, Denver has to contend with the looming COVID-19 funding cliff.

The home visit model isn’t feasible for all districts, either. Budget and time limitations get in the way, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t build trusting relationships with families. Schools can still adopt some tenets of the home visit program without additional funding, like framing conversations around families’ hopes and dreams for their children and creating opportunities for two-way communication, said Borrello, of the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement.

“If you want to engage a family and you’re not meeting them where they are literally, then you need to have a welcoming school environment [so that] families want to come and feel welcome and invited to the school,” he said.

It’s about a mindset shift more than anything, said Anthony Smith, Denver’s deputy superintendent. Interruptions in funding won’t change how Denver approaches parent and family engagement, Smith said.

“If something does change, the tenets of parent engagement should never die,” he said. “If we believe that the students come first, and we believe in accountability, and we believe in integrity, then I think we have to have these programs.”

Arredondo, Denver’s family and community engagement department leader, is always thinking about new ways to serve families, address challenges, and help parents help students succeed.

Three months ago she hired a migrant family engagement specialist who will help schools work with new arrival families, and she’s looking to add a Black family engagement specialist, a general family engagement specialist, and an engagement specialist for families of Hispanic descent.

“We have to adapt, just as our families adapt and are flexible and our families’ needs are evolving,” Arredondo said.

Next year, Yahaira will enroll in middle school. She and her mom are both anxious, but mostly excited.

Yahaira’s teachers have told them a lot about what to expect, about her middle school options, and how the experience might be different. And they’ve offered to hold another meeting this summer if the family has questions.

When Babb asked her if she’s excited for middle school, the 5th grader smiled.

“Yeah,” she said. “But I will miss my friends.”

“We will miss you,” Babb replied.

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