By Mike Marsee
A van pulls into the driveway. A teacher knocks on the door. Soon a parent calls a sleepy-headed child into the doorway.
For the next couple of minutes, that child has the undivided attention of that teacher. Less than 48 hours before the first day of school, a relationship has developed that figures to benefit both of them.
Creating those relationships was at the heart of an effort by the faculty and staff of Saffell Street Elementary School (Anderson County) to reach out to every one of their students in a single day earlier this month as part of the school’s inaugural Home Visit Blitz.
“One of our missions is building relationships with our community, with our parents, with our kids, so we wanted to get outside of the schools and get on their own turf,” Saffell Street Principal Todd Wooldridge said.
That meant knocking on doors from the subdivisions of Lawrenceburg to the banks of the Kentucky River in rural Anderson County and everywhere in between. Staff members made an attempt to visit virtually every student in grades 1-5, taking just a few minutes to say hello, answer any questions and to leave some information they would need for the upcoming year.
“I’ve never been on a home visit, so I was a little nervous. But I was excited to get out into the community and meet the parents,” said Holly Smith, a first-year teacher who is teaching 5th-grade reading and writing.
Lauren Sutherland, who has taught at Saffell Street for seven years, said she also felt apprehensive as she knocked on the door at the first house on her list.
“The first one was a little awkward, but I’ve loved doing it ever since,” Sutherland said. “It’s scary to just go up to the door, because you don’t know what to expect. A lot of the kids have been standing at the door, ready and waiting, and they’re just so excited to see you. It’s been a lot of fun, actually.”
Wooldridge said the leadership team at Saffell Street staff got the idea for the Home Visit Blitz during a visit to South Heights Elementary School (Henderson County), where home visits have been in place for several years.
“Now their families kind of expect it. It’s an expectation in the community that their teacher will come and see them before they go to school,” he said.
Amy Jacobs, an education consultant in the Kentucky Department of Education’s Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Branch, said it’s also a good way for teachers to build a bond with students and their families.
“Building early connections is good practice, as it can help in the transition into a new class and build trust and rapport between the teacher, students and family,” Jacobs said.
Each student the Saffell Street staff visited received a drawstring backpack that contained the school information, a refrigerator magnet with the school calendar, and in many cases, something extra from their teacher, such as a personal-size whiteboard. The staff missed a few students, of course, but teachers left a backpack at the door when no one answered their knock.
“We knew it would be rough the first year, but we’re excited about next year and the years after,” Wooldridge said.
The teachers said they were pleased with what the blitz accomplished.
“I thought it was really neat to get to come to the kids’ houses and see them there instead of having all of the parents come to us,” said Maris Harreld, a 5th-grade mathematics teacher who is in her first year at the school.
Second-grade teacher Elizabeth Harley said she thinks the students enjoyed it, too.
“It’s pretty cool to think, ‘The teacher came to my house to see me today. I’m important,’” she said.
Harley, who just began her 21st year in the Anderson County schools, said she did home visits in preschool during her early years in teaching, so she had an idea of what to expect. She said the visits are beneficial to teachers as well as students.
“This gives me insight as to maybe what the students like or don’t like. There was one boy who had on a Batman shirt, so I know he likes Batman. And the smiles on their faces show they’re excited about coming back to school,” she said.
The teachers’ day began with a quick meeting at school in which they picked up the drawstring backpacks, checked their address lists and got some last-minute instructions from Wooldridge.
“Remember, the purpose of this is relationships,” Wooldridge told them as they headed toward the door.
An app helped the teachers map out the most efficient route from their lists of addresses, and then they hit the road in pairs, with each teacher visiting the students in her homeroom along with another staff member. Teachers who don’t have homerooms and other staff members – such as the reading coach and the school secretary – rode along with other teachers.
“We paired people who don’t normally work with each other in school so they could get to know each other a little better,” said Wooldridge, who rode with Harley as she visited her students.
“I really have enjoyed meeting some of the parents. Sometimes I don’t get to meet all of them because I have every student in the school,” said Kacy Midkiff, who joins the Saffell Street faculty this year as the school’s music teacher and is new to Anderson County. “It’s been really eye-opening, and a wonderful experience.”
Sutherland, who will teach 1st grade for the first time this year, said seeing students at their homes will help her understand them.
“I think it makes you more aware of their background and what they’re coming from. If you have kids that don’t have a lot of support at home, then you realize that right off the bat and you realize that kid might need a little bit more,” she said. “
She also said she was encouraged by the students’ reactions.
“I think it makes them excited and shows them that their teachers are really wanting to get to know them and relate to them,” Sutherland said.
Even with the home visits, families still had the opportunity to visit the school. A scaled-down version of the back-to-school fair was held for 1st-graders and their parents on the day before classes started so those students would feel more comfortable the next morning. A Friday night block party offered free food and fun for students in every grade and their families.
“We want to make sure the families still feel welcome,” Wooldridge said.
MORE INFO …
Todd Wooldridge firstname.lastname@example.org
Elizabeth Harley email@example.com
Maris Harreld firstname.lastname@example.org
Kacy Midkiff email@example.com
Holly Smith firstname.lastname@example.org
Lauren Sutherland email@example.com
Kara Westerfield firstname.lastname@example.org
Caleb York email@example.com