To connect with students in the pandemic, schools across America have turned to web conferencing apps, video chats, and email.
But Colin Andrzejczyk, a veteran school counselor in central Vermont, has found something that may work better: a six-and-half-foot wooden plank.
Andrzejczyk, the students assistant program counselor for the Orange Southwest School District, has put thousands of miles on the district’s pickup truck since Covid-19 shuttered schools in March — he’s been traveling to students’ homes after they stopped engaging in school.
Arriving at their home, Andrzejczyk would place the plank on the grass — or the floor of their porch, or the gravel of the driveway — and, from a safe distance away, begin to talk.
“I imagine that there will be elements of this for the rest of my career. Even when we’re back in the building five days a week, and everything’s there. It’s been so eye-opening and helpful to both families and students,” he said.
Since the pandemic shifted so much of school online, some kids have fallen off the radar. To track them down, some educators are turning to a decidedly low-tech solution — home visiting.
Home visits are rare, albeit not unheard of in K-12 education. And there is a promising body of evidence, particularly in the younger grades, that suggests home visits can boost attendance, according to Steven Sheldon, an associate professor in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.
The effect is even more pronounced when researchers look at chronic absenteeism, which is also what is most likely to affect outcomes in school.
“Family engagement is not the silver bullet to solving all of our educational problems. But I don’t think you’re going to solve our educational problems without family engagement,” Sheldon said.
VTDigger is underwritten by:
The research isn’t yet very strong about why that might be, Sheldon said. But the theory is that home visits help educators better understand their students, and show families in a concrete way that someone at school truly cares about their child.
Not a single child cried
Rebecca Jackson, a preschool teacher at the elementary school in Fletcher, would likely agree. Jackson often did home visits in the past, but she decided to do them with all of her incoming students (if parents agreed) before the beginning of the school year to ease the transition.
“I thought that it was a potentially traumatic way to start school as a 3- or even a 4-year-old, having never met the teachers in person, having never been to the place you’re going to,” Jackson said. “And your parents can’t come in with you. And there’s not a gradual process. And everybody’s wearing masks.”
The home visits apparently helped — on the first day of school, not a single child cried. But pandemic aside, Jackson thinks home visits are a really powerful way to connect with students. Educators get a fuller picture of their students when they see them on their own turf, she said, and families trust you more if you’ve made the effort to come to them.
“Sometimes I think you might share things about your own child more in your home setting than you might in school. Because it feels different — even for the parent,” she said.
Families are sometimes surprised
At Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend, principal Bob Thibault said the school got the idea to do home visits after school staff members went door-to-door to distribute graduation lawn signs in the spring.
“We saw really how that face-to-face interaction was so needed by the kids and by their families — as it was by our staff, too, frankly,” he said.
The school, which serves a little under 300 students, is still all-remote this fall. So now, when kids don’t show up at a class on Zoom — or aren’t really submitting much work — school staff start knocking on doors.
At least once a week, Thibault and Sarah Grasso, the high school counselor, drive out for several hours to visit the homes of a handful of high school students. Johanna Liskowsky-Doak, Leland & Gray’s dean of students, and Cynthia Motter, the middle school counselor, go see students in the younger grades.
Families are sometimes surprised by the visitors — staff usually make their first visit, after all, if they haven’t been able to reach parents by other means. But Thibault stressed that school employees make it clear they’re there to offer help, not dole out discipline or reprimands.
“We might be delivering a Chromebook, or a charger; sometimes we’re delivering food, if we’re going to a house that we know might have some food needs. We’re bringing materials. Today, we dropped off art supplies,” he said.
Andrzejczyk’s colleague, Kara Merrill, a counselor at Randolph Union Middle and High School, said the expectation has long been that parents are supposed to come to the school — not the other way around. But the coronavirus-induced shutdown pierced that boundary.
“When I first started as a school counselor, I feel like the then-director of school counseling probably would have been like, ‘You’re gonna do what?’” she said.
Post-pandemic, Merrill thinks the volume of home visits will go down. But she thinks the school might keep turning to them to build a better rapport with families, and in particular help reach students who are chronically absent.
VTDigger is underwritten by:
“In a time of crisis, you think outside the box, and I feel like this is something that pushed a school’s boundaries more so than we typically do,” she said.
If you want to keep tabs on Vermont’s education news, sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger’s reporting on higher education, early childhood programs and K-12 education policy.