Before the pandemic hit, staff at Mitchell High School in Colorado Springs wanted to form deeper connections with their students and families — many of whom are in low income households. So, while sticking with traditional parent teacher conferences, they also began meeting with kids and parents in the students' homes.
Alison Kiselich is a special education teacher at Mitchell. On top of switching back and forth from in-person to virtual learning due to COVID-19, Kiselich has continued to reach out to her students outside of the classroom.
"We've done home visits on their porch sitting six feet apart," Kiselich said. "We've done virtual home visits. I've met with students at coffee shops, at parks…"
The goal of the Parent Teacher Home Visits program is not to improve test scores or talk about bad behavior, it's to build trust and community.
"You can have phone calls with parents and you can have emails with parents, but I think sitting down face-to-face and being able to just have a real conversation about what we want for your child, what we want for their future and how we can help them be successful has been a gamechanger for my caseload," Kiselich said.
Since the program began, she's managed to do a home visit in some form with all of her students and their families. That includes 16-year-old Olivia Murrow, a junior at Mitchell.
"She's not just a teacher. She's more than a teacher," Murrow said, describing Kiselich. "She built a friendship with us."
Murrow said that friendship has helped her be more comfortable with her teachers in a few ways, including feeling like she can ask for help when she's struggling with something inside or outside of the classroom.
Her parent Yolanda Norton said the conversations are more open than a typical parent-teacher conference.
"The teacher actually listens to what your concerns are, your goals and what you want for your child to get to where they need to be," Norton said.
The Parent Teacher Home Visits program can help with academics. But it's more than that.
In the past year, the voluntary pilot program has expanded to include all freshmen with failing grades. But it's still not about academics, although there may be a positive impact anyway.
Gina Martinez-Keddy is the Executive Director of the Parent Teacher Home Visits project at the national level. She consulted with and helped train the teachers at Mitchell High School. She said studies have shown this type of program can have some pretty significant academic results.
"We know that if you just bring people together to share their mutual hopes and dreams for that child, that they're going to be able to recognize that the other really cares about that child," she said. "And they're going to be able to work a lot in a much stronger partnership to help realize those dreams."
In 2018, a study from the Johns Hopkins School of Education on the national Parent Teacher Home Visit program at four schools across the country found the likelihood of chronic absence among students decreased by 21 percent. Additionally, their odds of scoring proficient on English language arts test increased by about 35 percent. It's too early to tell if the program at Mitchell will have those kinds of results, but it's just one thing happening at the school to try to improve outcomes.
This year, staff at Mitchell have conducted close to 170 visits, both virtual and in-person, with students in an effort to engage families within the school. That number is more than ten times the amount of visits in the previous year.
In addition, Mitchell High School houses a health clinic and food bank for students. Before the pandemic hit, the school offered classes for parents to learn English and financial literacy.
But assistant principal Amy Sanchez-Martinez said she sees this program as the vehicle to take things further, creating a hub for the neighborhood where parents can benefit as much as the students.
"[I think] having a place for them to go that's still in the same place where their children are at, I think would be excellent," she said.
For teachers, the individual connection matters.
For the teachers, there's very little extra incentive to do the home visits. They do receive training for how to set them up and how to approach parents who may be hesitant. Meetings are always scheduled ahead of time, and teachers go in pairs. Teachers are given extra time during the day to plan and coordinate the visits, as well.
Alison Kiselich said she'd do the visits even if those things weren't part of the deal. For her, it's about the individual connection.
"Two things that I'm very, very passionate about are home visits and self-directed IEPs (individualized education programs)," she said.
Even with the momentum of the parent-teacher home visit program and a handful of other initiatives at the school, Mitchell High School has been on the state's "accountability clock" for four years. All of the staff — from custodians to administrators — are being "released' at the end of this school year and have to reapply for their jobs.