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Helping teachers connect with students - in their homes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 25, 2013 - “The house is a goldmine of information,” said Karen Kalish, founder of Home Works, a teacher home visiting program. “You learn so much about that family and that child. Once we get in and see what’s going on, we can more easily see what can we do to increase academic achievement of child.” And expectations set the stage for our abilities.

Home 1: A working mother of three boys accepts no excuses for academic failure.

Home 2: A weary mother believes her job was finished the moment she left the delivery room.

Two home lives, two paths that lead to starkly different futures.

Home Works aims to forge a relationship between teachers and their students’ families. Through doing this, it hopes to increase academic achievement, attendance, and parental involvement for students attending Missouri public schools.

“When parents and teachers work together, kids do better. It’s not rocket science.” Kalish said. “We have to get into homes and equip parents with skills and tools for kids to come to school ready to learn. That message starts at home.”

This nonprofit program, which began in 2007, pays teachers to conduct home visits and try to give parents tools to help children do better in school and succeed academically and socially.

Teacher participation in Home Works is completely voluntary, recognizing that not all teachers have the time or availability to participate.

Each participating school in the Home Works program must make at least a three-year commitment to the Program. At least 50 percent of the certified classroom teachers must do home visits and agree to visit at least 50 percent of their students.

The basic structure of the program involves teachers going in pairs to pay two visits to families in their home each school year — the first visit focuses on getting to know the family and the second focuses on academics — and families being invited to two dinners at the school.

Funded by corporations, family foundations and individuals, Home Works is in 22 schools in Missouri (20 in the St. Louis area and two in Columbia) including four early childhood centers, 14 elementary schools, three middle schools, and one high school.

The participating schools are Preclarus Mastery Academy, South City Preparatory Academy, Benton Elementary, Parkade Elementary, De Soto Early Childhood Center, Athena Elementary School, Vineland Elementary School, De Soto Junior High School, De Soto High School, Stix Early Childhood Center, Wilkinson Early Childhood Center, Buder Elementary School, Clay Elementary School, Dewey International Studies School, Humboldt Academy of Higher Learning, Mallinckrodt Academy of Gifted Instruction, Woerner Elementary School, Julia Goldstein Early Childhood Education Center, Barbara C. Jordan Elementary School, Flynn Park Elementary School, Jackson Park Elementary School and Pershing Elementary School.

Troy Hogg, principal of Benton S.T.E.M. Elementary School in Columbia, Mo., first heard about the program when Kalish held a workshop at the Missouri Association of Elementary Principals at the Lake of the Ozarks. He said, “Immediately on the way back I called our assistant superintendent saying ‘We’re on board, We’re on board.’”

The Home Works Program will not drastically change what's done at the Benton School, which has always had conferences, family dinners, and other face-to-face encounters with the family but will provide structured training.

Hogg says, “It’s the training on how to do a home visit that we haven’t had in the past, teachers were sort of flying off the cuff." With training, "they will know what works and what doesn’t.”

Kelly Smothers, a P.E. teacher at Parkade Elementary in Columbia, began training this spring. She hopes participation in Home Works “will build stronger relationships between students and parents and help us understand where they come from. I want teachers, parents, and students to be a part of one community.”

University City kindergarten teacher Debbie Kuster joined Home Works in the fall of 2012. She says, “I have to say I believe in it, the more connection we make between parents home and school is helpful. To get personal with parents it helps them understand why their kids are doing what they’re doing and what they’re struggling with.”

Despite the belief in the goal of Home Works, Kuster expresses some disappointment with the reality of the program. She says, “Sadly I have to say from personal experience, it did not make as big a difference as I thought it would with my entire class.” However she is quick to remind herself, “With a couple students it has made a huge difference. I guess if you’ve made a difference in one kid, you’ve made a difference.”

The biggest issue with the program seems to be ensuring a second home visit takes place. Many parents, for a variety of reasons, are reluctant to have anyone in their house, much less for a second time. But Kalish remains optimistic saying, “Every challenge is an opportunity. This is some of the most important work in the United States. Every child needs a great principal, teacher, and parents to be successful in schools.”

In addition to Home Works, Kalish has started several nonprofit organizations: Cultural Leadership, founded in 1993, teaches high school students to be activists for social justice. Books and Badges, started in 2002, sends the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to elementary schools to help with reading and writing.

Kalish describes her work in the community as a calling. “My life is a get to rather than a got to. I am all about making a difference in the world,” she says.

Caroline Ludeman is a Beacon intern.