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Studies show family engagement makes ‘a real difference’

Decades of evidence suggests building relationships with parents can improve student achievement, said Susan Stevenson, executive director of the Flamboyan Foundation, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that focuses on building communities.
Family engagement is tied to reduced dropout and higher graduation rates, high motivation and attendance and higher test scores, according to various studies collected by the foundation.
In interviewing high school dropouts, authors of “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts” found 71 percent said more communication between parents and schools might have prevented them from dropping out of school.
The foundation has trained teachers in about 56 schools to conduct the summer home visits, Stevenson said.
“It has made a real difference to their teaching,” Stevenson said.
The foundation was trained on a formal process to conduct home visits by a Sacramento, Calif.-based nonprofit, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project.
The project was established in 1998 to help school systems and schools organize the way they conduct summer home visits, said Carrie Rose, executive director of the project. The organization receives federal grants and private donations each year to train school districts so they have set practices and can implement the visits as a long-term practice, Rose said.
The organization’s budget has been growing as interest grows. Last year, the budget was about $300,00, and this fiscal year, which started July 1, the budget is around $400,000, Rose said.
Schools in 12 states and Washington, D.C., including Virginia but not Maryland, have received training from the project, Rose said.
Rose said that the Sacramento community started the project after wanting to form stronger communities, and finding that blame is shifted between teachers and parents when students fail to succeed.
“We realized there needed to be a vehicle to connect communities, so that people trust each other,” she said.

It was the day after the Hughes family’s vacation, and Scott and Lisa Hughes and their sons were relaxing in their Derwood home.

Their oldest child, Jake, who is about to begin eighth grade at Shady Grove Middle School, paced around the living room.

His principal, Edward Owusu, was on his way.

Jake said he was nervous — none of his principals had ever visited him at home.

But soon after arriving, Owusu had Jake and his brother Jimmy laughing.

“A Redskins jersey, instead of the Ravens? Really, Jimmy?” he joked.

Jake hadn’t done anything wrong; Owusu was just there to talk.

To reach out to parents, discuss student goals, and build a trusting relationship between the school and its families, Owusu said he, his counselors and teachers will go to about 40 homes before the first day of school, Aug. 27.

Most of the time, a principal visits a home because a student’s in trouble. Owusu said he visits homes so everyone is on the same page before school starts.

It’s his fourth year at the school and his fourth year doing the visits, and he said he has found it to be worthwhile.

“We talk about going beyond the bake sale, in trying to coax parents into the building,” Owusu said. “Why not try to step out of the building, and into the neighborhoods? It is such an easy way to strengthen the relationships and build on things.”

Montgomery County Public Schools does not have a formal practice for home visits during the summer, although principals are free to do them if they want, said Kathy C. Brake, a director of school performance.

The school system doesn’t track how many principals do summer visits, Brake said, adding she conducted home visits when she was a principal.

“I wanted parents to know that there was a strong school-home partnership,” she said. “I wanted to make sure they knew I was available to support them in any way possible, and invested in their child.”

At Shady Grove Middle School, counselors and teachers select families they would like to meet — for many different reasons, and not just because of behavior, academic or communication problems, Owusu said. He visits both succeeding and struggling students.

Although most families are welcoming offer, Owusu said that some families to decline the offer — a decision he said he is respectful of.

The visits provide an opportunity for staff to build relationships with parents who aren’t as comfortable in the school, such as immigrant or non-English-speaking families, Owusu said.

The demographics at the school are similar to that in the county, except Shady Grove Middle has a higher Hispanic population, with 33.6 percent Hispanic students, 26 percent white students, 20.7 percent black students, 14.9 percent Asian students and less than 5 percent of other races. The school’s low-income population is slightly higher than the county average, at 35.1 percent, or about 200 of the school’s 569 students last school year.

Owusu’s parents are from Ghana, so he understands the cultural barriers that can prevent parents from stepping into a school.

“In their home countries, you don’t go to the school,” he said.

It allows teachers, such as math department head Laura Schrader, to see and better understand the family’s culture, and the home environment, she said.

“It sends the message that you care enough to do it,” Schrader said.

Teachers must find hours during summer prep days to make the visits, as they don’t get paid overtime for it, Owusu said.

Because Scott Hughes works at Jake’s school in computer support, and Lisa Hughes is a teacher, the family is tied into the school system.

Still, they used the chance to review Jake’s grades, test scores, his upcoming transition into high school and the Advanced Placement courses he can take.

Owusu said he takes families’ suggestions and concerns from the visits back to teachers.

For students such as Jake, the concerns might be smaller, such as remembering to place his name on a test, or organizing his backpack.

But they still matter, Owusu said.

“Basically, we just want you to do your best,” Owusu told Jake, who sat on his family’s couch, tapping his bare feet on the floor during the Aug. 3 visit. “If you’re struggling, let us know.”

Before school starts, Owusu will get to six or seven more homes.

He will send an automated phone call to the families, letting them know he or his staff would be in the area.

The Hughes family said they would recommend the visit to others.

“The nice thing about it is it’s in your house, so there are no barriers,” Lisa Hughes said.

jbondeson@gazette.net