On a hot August day, speech pathologist Stacey Goverski's first home visit with a future kindergartner's family did not start out very promisingly.
The little boy's mom was seriously concerned about whether her son would even go to school. Pre-K had not gone well and she was very anxious about the transition to Troy's School 2. He hated the idea of wearing a school uniform and dreaded riding the bus.
Comfortable in his home environment, the little boy was eager to talk with his teachers and quick to show them his room and his toys. He didn't want them to leave.
After building a nice rapport, the three-teacher team assured him they'd be there for him at school — and suggested mom take a cell phone picture of them to show the boy and ease his apprehension. "We talked about pre-setting him and that's when we got the idea about taking the picture," Goverski said. "I think the home visit definitely helped make the transition a little easier for him."
Across the city, special education teacher Noelle Frederick and teaching assistant Marilyn Barton were warmly welcomed into the Williams' walk-up apartment. With four young kids running around, it was a little busy — but it helped that Frederick had taught big brother Joey two years ago.
While Frederick crouched down next to future first-grader Charlie and introduced herself, Barton talked with his mom, Stephanie, about his difficulties with potty training.
The 30-minute visit spoke volumes.
"It helps to see the family dynamic and lets you start the year off on a positive note," Frederick said. "It gives us a chance to let them know 'It's us together for your child.'"
Stephanie Williams said she greatly appreciated the visit. "It's hard for me to get a sitter for four kids and get over to school," she said. "I don't have time to go to open house night ... and this gives you more of a chance to talk to the teacher."
Other Troy family visits took place outside the home. Some parents were more comfortable meeting at the local library or a neighborhood church.
A team including third-grade teacher Lyndsey Lutz, special education teacher Kristie Marino and school counselor Jennifer White met with a family at an area homeless shelter and got an eye-opening look at exactly what their student was dealing with.
Those were the kind of experiences a group of about 50 Troy teachers reported as part of a new family engagement program offered by NYSUT. The family visit project is one of several parent-engagement programs the statewide union is promoting.
NYSUT is also working with Herkimer, Rome and Solvay local unions, with support from the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association.
"As more and more schools are looking at the community school model, we know parent engagement is key," said NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino. "Study after study shows family engagement improves student learning and attendance. And these family visits can be highly successful in forging positive relationships."
Herkimer Faculty Association President Kristin Stallman, whose rural district launched the program on a pilot basis, said the visits seemed to smooth out the typical opening day issues in her kindergarten class.
"Maybe it's a coincidence, but I had no criers and the children seemed more at ease and better prepared for the first day," she said. "And I feel like I had a more solid sense of who they are, where they're coming from, what their favorite activities are. Usually, I'm so nervous at kindergarten orientation day, but this year I didn't feel that way, maybe because I had visited with so many of them."
Stallman, who has taught kindergarten for 21 years, said Herkimer's pilot program was totally voluntary and focused on the early grades and transitioning seventh-graders moving from elementary school to the junior-senior high school. "You tend to think of this as a program for early elementary, but our seventh-grade team felt the visits were equally beneficial," Stallman said. "We definitely would like to keep that secondary component."
While home visit models vary, Fortino said, it's crucial for programs to be voluntary and for educators to be well-trained and compensated for their time.
NYSUT's training program emphasizes building trust and avoiding assumptions about parents. "Become the listener, not the expert," NYSUT's Carolyn Williams suggested at a pre-visit training. "When you introduce yourself, don't give them a resume. You want it to be real ... Trust is the connective tissue for meaningful family-school partnerships."
To set the right tone, home visit participants are advised not to bring any papers, clipboards or other items that will make parents feel like it's a formal visit from an agency. Educators practice making that tough first phone call and role-playing possible scenarios. For a team approach, educators work in pairs or trios, including support staff members and special area teachers.
It's vital to have administration support. In Troy, School 2 Principal Natelege Turner-Hassell sent a letter to parents encouraging them to participate and setting the stage for a friendly visit.
"This is NOT a meeting to tell you what to do as a parent or to get you to sign up for anything," Turner-Hassell wrote. "This is a time to get to know you and your child away from school so that we can listen to what you as a parent have to say about your child's future."
"As nervous as we are about going, the parents are nervous, too," said Troy Parent Engagement and Family Advocate Stephanie Stinney. "Some of them have bad memories of school. Some of them are struggling to get by. But our parents have the same hopes and dreams as parents in the suburbs. They just want a better life for their kids."
NYSUT is looking for local unions interested in building family-engagement programs linked to learning. For information, contact project coordinator Carolyn Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.