Anali Alarcon assumed her children were in trouble when their elementary-school teachers called and asked if they could stop by the house.
Instead, the Salt Lake City resident said her visitors from Backman Elementary School spent a half-hour at her home chatting while the kids showed off soccer trophies and other personal treasures to the guests.
“It was like a friend’s visit. It wasn’t like teachers and students,” Alarcon said later in an interview. “We asked them a lot of questions. We talked about how we can help our kids to progress more.”
Alarcon’s son and daughter attend Backman, where teachers have conducted home visits for the past four years as a way to boost attendance at the west-side Salt Lake City school and improve relationships between parents and school employees.
The visits are gaining wider popularity as a strategy for improving school performance, but they are also time-consuming and carry a price tag for teachers’ after-hours work.
Creates a grant program to fund home visits by public school teachers to build relationships with families and combat absenteeism. - Read full text
Last year, state funding under an existing turnaround program — aimed at improving struggling and often-impoverished schools — was made available to cover home visits, leading several schools to adopt them.
But now that money is no longer available after a reinterpretation of the turnaround law’s restrictions. Many participating schools, citing a lack of resources, are shutting down the visits.
Last week, a bill in the Utah Legislature that seeks $400,000 for state-level grants to pay for home visits hit resistance from members of the Utah Board of Education and the House Education Committee, with concerns over cost, government overreach and whether the visits are voluntary.
“We’d all gotten a lot of emails from individuals saying, ‘Stop this bill,’” said Rep. Bruce Cutler, R-Murray, sponsor of HB235. “I think it’s primarily the home-schoolers. They want to be left alone, and I totally agree with that.”
A familiar face
Yet school administrators say they’re eager to restart home visits. And while some schools, including Backman, have found ways to keep the approach going without state cash, educators say added support would make a larger difference, particularly for Title I schools with high rates of poverty and diverse student bodies.
“A lot of the pushback on this bill is coming from people who don’t fully understand what it looks like to be in a Title 1 school,” Backman Elementary Principal Heather Newell said, “and what it takes to try to get our kids to proficiency.”
Midvale Elementary teacher Annie Love completed 50 home visits last year, including one for each of the students in her second-grade classes. She and fellow teachers worked in pairs, she said, visiting a few homes a week, most before the Christmas break at the start of the academic year.
Parents, Love said, “were surprised because that’s not something that typically happens. They were really receptive and excited that we just wanted to simply get to know them and their families better.”
Love said it was informative to see the living situations of her students. It made her reflect on the types of homework she was sending home and the materials needed to complete assignments.
But the primary benefit has been more familiarity with parents, she said, who were then more accessible and quicker to reach out with questions and concerns during the rest of the year.
“I would love to do it again,” Love said. “I felt like the reaction from my kids and the parents was so helpful.”
Denzil “Chip” Watts, principal of Midvale Elementary, said his teachers completed a combined 350 visits last year, reaching roughly half the school’s student body. Those visits also carried a total cost of $40,000, he said, which the school won’t be able to pull off again without more funding.
“One hundred percent of the feedback that I had from parents was positive,” the principal said. “It helped my teachers feel like they were part of the Midvale community in a way that they haven’t before.”
Breaking down barriers
At Midvale Elementary, teachers were encouraged to visit as many of their students’ homes as possible. But at other schools — and under Cutler’s HB235 — visits are based on lagging attendance.
Newell, at Backman, said the number of students deemed chronically absent — missing 10 percent or more of the school days in a year — fell from 30 percent of students to 11 percent after she became principal.
“Home visits was absolutely a huge part of that,” she said.
To keep the visits going without state help, Newell said her school taps money that would typically go to pay for parent-teacher conferences. Instead of inviting parents in for two private teacher meetings in the fall and spring, Backman hosts a grade-level open house at the start of the year, then encourages teachers to do seven home visits in lieu of conferences.
“We are trying to break down barriers,” Newell said. “A kid isn’t coming to school, and we need to find out why.”
Teachers can’t teach absent children, Newell argues, and the state evaluates the quality of a school and its staff based on test scores that directly correlate with getting kids into a classroom.
“I care about attendance because lawmakers care about school grades,” Newell said. “If they are going to hold us accountable by school grades, then we have to have tools to support our families to come to school.”
Cutler — who sits on the House Education Committee and is a former Murray school board member — said many of Utah’s lowest-performing schools are home to immigrant and refugee families who may not understand the public education system. For many of these families, he said, meeting a teacher in a nonschool setting can keep a child from falling through the cracks.
“A lot of them have never been in school, and they haven’t sent their kids to school,” he said. “It doesn’t solve all the problems, but at least it builds that relationship.”
Suspicion of government
A divided Utah Board of Education voted Thursday to support Cutler’s bill, with the caveat that members backed the idea of a home visit grant program but reserved the right to object to potential amendments as HB235 works its way through Capitol Hill.
The legislative session adjourns March 8.
Some state school board members opposed the notion of a state-sanctioned program that encourages visits by government officials — in the form of teachers — to private residences.
Board Vice Chairwoman Alisa Ellis said she preferred to err on the side of less government intrusion and questioned how some schools are able to conduct visits within their existing budgets.
“What’s prohibiting local [school] districts from doing this type of thing right now?” she said.
School board member Lisa Cummins said HB235 caused late President Ronald Reagan’s apocryphal nine most terrifying words — “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” — to go off inside her head.
A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Cummins suggested that faith-based programs such as the Mormon church’s home teaching and visiting teaching programs might be better suited to meet families’ needs.
“I believe that the church, any church, the church in general, has the capabilities,” Cummins said, “and should be more inclusive with families that are relocating in trauma situations like this.”
Autumn Cook, an education advocate, said she objects to the creation of formal, statewide program. Home visits might be appropriate for local school administrators to consider as they try to improve schools, she said, but don’t write them into state law as a goal.
“It sounds like what people have been doing locally has been working very well,” Cook said. “Once you start getting the state in there, you get data collection and pressures that come from the system.”
Schools should turn to community support, such as donors or other means, if they decide home visits help, she said. But to chase attendance numbers to boost test scores and grades only compounds an already-inefficient accountability system, she argued.
“They have all my sympathy. I think school grading is a disaster,” Cook said. “We shouldn’t turn to another program to enforce bad policies.”
The $400,000 a year for grants Cutler’s bill seeks is a relatively small figure compared to the multimillion-dollar turnaround program and other Legislature-created initiatives aimed at school improvement.
The House Education Committee voted last week to hold the bill, without rejecting HB235 or advancing it for debate on the House floor. That leaves the possibility open the committee will reconsider HB235 this year, though its chances of passage are diminished.
“I was surprised, to tell you the truth. We may not get it done this year, but maybe next year,” said Cutler, adding that he was working with the state Board of Education and Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration to find financial backing.
“The challenge is always the funding,” he said.
Board of Education spokesman Mark Peterson said there might be room to prioritize funding for home visits within some of the other steps taken as part of the state’s turnaround program.
Among those are teacher recruitment and retention incentives, or the money paid to private consultants, depending on the contracts and improvement plans mandated by law.
“Federal Title I funds and federal school improvement funds can also be used for this purpose,” Peterson said. “The change from past practice is that the state will not be setting aside funding dedicated solely to home visits.”
And moving money around within turnaround efforts will still force hard choices, such as the decision at Backman Elementary to do away with traditional parent-teacher conferences.
Another option would be for teachers to do visits on their own time, without compensation. Love said she’d be willing to do the extra work without pay, although it would only add to the personal time that she and other teachers already spend on classroom tasks.
“We should be paid,” Love said. “It really does take a lot of time.”
Newell said Backman will continue to find a way to do the visits, with or without state help. To her, adequately paying teachers for the outreach is part of a broader issue of appreciating their service.
“It really is awesome to have teachers be recognized as professionals and compensated for the work that they do when it goes above and beyond,” the principal said. “Home visits are above and beyond.”