Teachers try home meetings to help students
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Katrina Ohlemiller spends most of her afternoons and weekends, not at home, but at the homes of her students.
To get ready, the Hoover Elementary School teacher dedicates dozens of hours a month preparing school supplies, scheduling meetings and traveling to where families are most comfortable.
She’s part of a growing movement of Salem and Keizer educators to make Parent Teacher Home Visits more common practice, with local organizations doubling the program’s funding and providing incentives for staff to foster deeper relationships with their students’ families.
The benefits of the visits extend beyond eliminating barriers and ensuring families are involved in their children’s education. Students become more likely to attend school and score higher on standardized tests.
About 650 staff across Salem-Keizer Public Schools have been trained for home visits. And they want that number to grow.
“That phrase, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ is something that I strongly believe in,” Ohlemiller said. “I am trying to build community and find out how we can work together to best support their child.”
Making time for students
Last year, Ohlemiller — affectionately known by her students as Ms. O — made three 30- to 60-minute home visits for almost each of her 19 students. She also made certain every student got between 40-75 books.
If families aren’t comfortable meeting at home, she meets them at public spaces like a park or coffee shop. If they don’t have school supplies, she buys them crayons, scissors, glue sticks and pencils. And when families are skeptical about why she’s there, she simply explains she cares about their child and wants the best for them.
Martin Carbajal, 6, a first grader at Hoover Elementary School, gets a home visit from his teacher, Katrina Ohlemiller, while sitting with his sister, Barbie, 8, and mom, Sonya, in their Salem home on Oct. 4, 2019.Buy Photo
Martin Carbajal, 6, a first grader at Hoover Elementary School, gets a home visit from his teacher, Katrina Ohlemiller, while sitting with his sister, Barbie, 8, and mom, Sonya, in their Salem home on Oct. 4, 2019. (Photo: ANNA REED / STATESMAN JOURNAL)
Ohlemiller’s been making home visits since 2004 when she taught in Forest Grove, and started doing them in Salem-Keizer when she moved in 2016.
With 30 students in her class this year, Ohlemiller’s goal is to make two home visits per student, and get at least 20 books into each home, depending on the needs of the family.
She recognizes the visits are a large time commitment not all educators can make — going beyond regular parent-teacher conferences — but she argues it’s a game-changer.
“Raising and educating a child is no easy task,” she said. “But if we work together, it can work better for everyone and the children can reap all the benefits.”
Not for the money
Home visits have a lasting impact on student outcomes, according to research from groups such as Johns Hopkins University.
In fact, students who get home visits are about 20% less likely to be chronically absent and 35% more likely to score higher on certain standardized tests.
Salem-Keizer teachers are not required to participate in the Parent Teacher Home Visit program, but the Salem-Keizer Education Association is trying to make them more regular by providing educators training and financial incentives.
To do so, they’ve partnered with the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation, known as SKEF, which has given $5,000 to support visits since last year. This year, because the association is also contributing $5,000, the funding totals $10,000 for the first time.
The money is used to reimburse each staff member $35 per visit, which requires two people. Organizers hope this can help offset the time-consuming nature of the program.
“It may not sound like a lot, but ... ($35 is) a little extra incentive to go along and get to know the students,” Ohlemiller said.
That said, $10,000 is used up quickly.
There were 212 paid visits in 2017-18 and 2018-19 combined, according to the association. This was before the money was increased.
$10,000 can potentially up the number to 142 visits per year, depending on how much is needed for training. Additionally, some individual schools budget for home visits as well, which helps.
But when the funding is gone, teachers often continue the work without the financial incentive. As a result, it’s not truly known how many visits are made each year.
Mindy Merritt, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association, said the money can feel like “a drop in the bucket” when it’s used up in a matter of weeks. Nonetheless, the value remains the same.
“For many students, (the home visit) is the first time they have ever heard their own parent share a hope and dream about their child’s future,” she said.
Connecting with a Hoover family
Ohlemiller and Superintendent Christy Perry recently visited one of Ohlemiller’s first graders, Martin Carbajal, 6.
They greeted each member of the family upon arrival, including Carbajal’s sister, Barbie, the family’s turtle, Michelangelo, and their dogs, Frida and Brownie.
Ohlemiller sat on the living room couch and handed parents Sonya and Martin a new folder for the year, decorated with words such as, “I am smart. I am tough. I will always be enough.”
Ohlemiller and Carbajal recited the pledge they take everyday at school, including the message, “I will not waste this day, because this day will not come again.”
Ohlemiller explained how Carbajal’s doing in math, reading and computers. She said he likes to solve problems, talked about how helpful he is with the younger students and applauded him for his creative art.
Carbajal’s drawings are displayed on the walls throughout the house, including two detailed shark sketches pinned just behind Ohlemiller’s seat.
Sonya and Martin want Carbajal, who can be quiet and shy, to keep doing what he’s doing — always exploring and trying new things — and they hope he starts to come out of his shell a little more.
Ohlemiller showed the family to supplies and books she brought for Carbajal and his siblings. They talked about him wanting to become a farmer like his father.
“My hope is that families see we want them to partner with us in the education of their student,” Superintendent Perry said. “Educators who do these make a conscious effort to prioritize this relationship building activity over other things.”