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posted: 7/31/2012 11:12 AM

District 7 hopes to expand teacher home-visit program

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Officials in Wood Dale Elementary District 7 knew they were launching a rare educational experiment last year and were unsure how it would unfold.

The district began a program that allows teachers to visit the home of each of their students, with parent permission, in an effort to build better relationships between teachers and families. Ultimately, the goal is to improve students' academic performance, Superintendent John Corbett said.

Four teachers -- one from Wood Dale Junior High, one from Oakbrook Elementary and two from Westview Elementary -- volunteered this past school year. And the feedback they got was just what they hoped for.

In anonymous surveys, students offered assessment like:

"I liked it when you came. It helped me feel more comfortable with you."

"It makes me feel special, very special."

"I felt excited, good and great because you came to my house, because you could see my house and I hope it happens again next year."

Now administrators are making that a reality. All the participating teachers but one, who had to decline for family reasons, will return to the program next year. And the district hopes more teachers will volunteer.

"I think everything indicates it was all very positive," Corbett said. "Teachers reported a very positive experience, and the (school) board was in complete agreement to continue."

The idea for the home-visit program was born when Corbett read an article about a St. Louis school district that offers a similar program. He said visits at that district led to parents participating more at school events, students having fewer discipline referrals and teachers thinking they have more credibility with parents.

District 7 teachers were trained last summer with resources from the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project in Sacramento, Calif., which has a similar program that served as its model.

Teachers then aimed to visit the homes of all students whose parents agreed during after-school hours. No teacher got into every household, but all four visited the majority of their students' homes, officials said.

Corbett said teachers observed the family and spoke with parents about hopes for their children, challenges the children are facing and strengths they can encourage in class. And it gave students a chance to bond with their teachers by showing off important parts of their daily lives, such as musical instruments and pets.

"The teachers could visualize where they live," he said. "See where they study, if they are sharing a room with siblings, see if there is a grandparent living in the house. This allows them to make recommendations that will help with their study habits."

Donna Breckenfelder, District 7 instructional coach, said the visits were especially helpful with parents who "maybe did not have a good experience as a child in school and had anxiety themselves."

"This allowed them to visit with the teacher on their own turf," Breckenfelder said.

In some cases, parents and teachers agreed a second visit during the year was helpful. In a few cases, Corbett said, teachers observed situations that required students to be referred to social workers or other specialists.

"If there was not a home visit possible, who knows if that need would have been addressed as quickly, or ever?" Breckenfelder said.

Teachers who volunteer for the program are paid a stipend that is structured similarly to staff members who coach after-school sports and clubs. District 7 is unsure how many teachers will participate beyond the three founding volunteers, who hope to recruit several more colleagues. But he said he does hope to increase the stipend because the visits often took longer than the hour allotted.

District 7 will develop its new budget in August and will examine how much money is available for the program. But Breckenfelder said all four teachers wanted to stay beyond the allotted hour when it was needed because they didn't want to shortchange the students and their families.

"They really wanted to embrace that time and put in the extra hour, half-hour, whatever it took," she said. "And I think that speaks really well for our teachers."

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