One of the biggest factors that affects a student's success in schools isn't found at school — it's found at home.
When parents are engaged, studies from institutions including Harvard University and the US Department of Education show, children are more likely to succeed: School attendance and grades shoot up, so does a child's likelihood of graduating high school and enrolling in college. Dropout rates decrease and students act out less. Children say they are more excited to learn.
But to foster rich family partnership in schools there must be a strong foundation of trust between school staff and families — something that is, unfortunately, too often lacking. Research supports what common sense tells us. A University of Chicago study of 400 schools found significant academic student gains in schools that prioritized relationship-building between home and school, compared with schools that didn't.
How can strong teacher-family partnerships be fostered? Increasingly, districts nationwide are starting the school year by going home — to students' homes.
Traditionally, home visits have often been reserved for unruly or truant students, but a growing number of programs see the benefit of a different type of visit as a way to build relationships.
Almost 20 years ago, teachers and parents in Sacramento started the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project, training school staff to develop partnerships with families by first visiting them in their homes and learning from them about the hopes and dreams they have for their child.
The strategy worked. Schools and families began to trust each other and began to collaborate. Across participating schools and districts, student achievement shot up. A 2015 Johns Hopkins University and Flamboyan Foundation study of 4,000 students in Washington, D.C., found that students whose teachers came to their homes had a 24 percent reduction in absences and were more likely to read at or above grade level, compared to students who did not receive a home visit.
The Parent Teacher Home Visit Project has grown to partner with districts and schools in 17 states. Last year, the project named Massachusetts a regional hub of excellence, with the hope that it can help lead the nation in this work.
For 10 years, Springfield has been a leader as one of the nation's first cities to adopt the Sacramento model. In 2015, and again in 2016, the district committed $99,000 to sustain and expand home visits in all elementary schools. Significantly, the program has strong trilateral support from the district, the National Education Association teachers union, and Pioneer Valley Project, a coalition of community and faith-based organizations.
Three years ago, former Boston city councilor John Connolly cofounded a nonprofit called 1647, aimed at increasing family engagement in schools across the commonwealth. Today, 1647 trains and supports teachers doing home visits in Lawrence, Salem, and Boston.
What would it take to incorporate a rich family home-visit program into every district and school in the Commonwealth? On average, it costs $60 to train a teacher, and $40 per home visit to cover the cost of a teacher's time. A vibrant home-visiting program would cost a school roughly $10,000 to $20,000 per year — less then two-tenths of a percent of many school budgets in the state. There are numerous funding sources, including access to federal Title 1 money, which provides support for schools with high percentages of low-income students.
Families are one of the greatest and most underappreciated resources in education. Schools and teachers should reach out and collaborate with them in the important work of inspiring the next generation.
Jessica Lander is a teacher and writer living in Cambridge