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Originally published September 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 5, 2007 at 2:08 AM

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Program aims to give schools a flying start

Araceli Gonzalez's homeroom teacher had a baby this summer, so she'll have a substitute today when she starts eighth grade at Denny Middle...

Seattle Times education reporter

Araceli Gonzalez's homeroom teacher had a baby this summer, so she'll have a substitute today when she starts eighth grade at Denny Middle School.

But that's nothing to worry about, because Araceli, 13, has already met him. He knows about her goal of becoming a secretary and that she sometimes gets embarrassed about asking for help in class. Even though Araceli's mom speaks only Spanish, she has spoken with Araceli's substitute teacher through an interpreter and has made plans to talk to him after the first week of school to see how things are going.

Reaching out to families is nothing new for schools around the region, which typically hold open houses or orientations. At least one — Lake Hills Elementary in Bellevue — sends staff members and other parents to meet students and their families.

In Seattle, an expanding program at South End schools sends teachers and other staff members to students' homes. The visits are part of a district program that targets two sets of high-needs schools to get extra staff training, special curriculum and resources.

A joint effort of the district and the teachers union, "Flight Schools" is meant to imply that the schools are on their way up — taking flight. The program started in 2005 with about $150,000 in private money for helping Rainier Beach High School and the elementary and middle schools that feed into it. In 2006, the district received a $250,000 grant from the National Education Association to expand the program.

Last year, it added West Seattle's Chief Sealth High School and the schools that feed into it, deploying teachers and school staff to more than 3,000 families in West and Southeast Seattle. Next year, Cleveland High and its feeder schools may join.

Effects of involvement

Research shows that kids whose families are engaged in their schooling do better on tests, get better grades and have better attendance and more positive attitudes. But often lower-income families aren't involved for a variety of reasons: They're busy with work or don't feel comfortable going to the school, or there's a language barrier that keeps them from communicating with school staff.

The home visits aim to forge a relationship before school even starts, by meeting on the families' turf.

"It's important that they come here because they give me ideas," Araceli's mother, Lidia Cabrera, said of the visit to her White Center home last week. "It helps me feel secure about who my daughter is with."

While Denny assistant principal Mia Williams and teacher Jon Rogers talked to Cabrera, Araceli sat on the sofa, occasionally looking embarrassed. Through a translator, Cabrera told the visitors about her dreams for her daughter. She likes to keep a close eye on her kids, she told them, and asked them to let her know if Araceli starts to fall behind.

They talked about other ways Araceli could ask for help and made sure Cabrera knew about a reception for Latino parents at the Denny open house this fall.

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Not all visits go so well. Interaction can be awkward. At a Southeast Seattle visit last week, teachers did most of the talking. As a translator tried to keep up, they talked at length about curriculum and quizzed the mother about the kids' television habits, summer reading and math skills.

And some teachers say the visits make them feel like they're invading families' privacy or, more practically speaking, going beyond the parameters of their jobs.

Some teachers opposed

Teachers get paid extra for the days and hours they spend making the visits, but the training takes place outside of the union-contracted school year. What's more, the teachers' contract specifically says visits to students' homes are optional.

That's a problem for some members of the union, including Robert Femiano, who teaches second grade at West Seattle's Sanislo Elementary School and is an executive board member of the Seattle Education Association (SEA). Sanislo feeds into Sealth High School, so Sanislo teachers are required to do the home visits.

District Education Director Pat Sander said if teachers aren't comfortable doing home visits, they are allowed to teach at schools that don't require them. Last year, the district offered a makeup training session during the contract year.

Besides the contract issue, Femiano wonders if parents really want teachers in their homes. He said a better way to engage families is to invite them to school.

"I'm not against involving parents," he said. "A home visit isn't, in my opinion, as effective as the parents knowing what's going on in the classroom by coming in."

He estimates that about a third of the teachers expected to participate in home visits aren't doing them.

SEA Executive Director Steve Pulkkinen said most teachers support the program.

"Almost universally, the members that do the home visits find them very powerful and very important to the work that they're doing," he said. "There are some members who don't believe that they should have to do the home visits."

Bernardo Ruiz trains teachers to do the visits as the district's coordinator for family and community engagement. The visits help teachers create individual plans for kids' education, he said.

"We want to engage our parents," he said. "It could become a learning opportunity for the children, you know, trying to plant that seed [that] talking to your child is important. ... We need to make families part of every single thing we do."

Roxhill Elementary School Principal Cathy Thompson said there is a buzz around school during the home visits, as teachers and staff get excited about meeting their future students. During one visit, a second-grader chose a book and asked Thompson to read it, right then and there. So while other staff members talked to the girl's parents, Thompson made a special connection with that child. That's the kind of thing that makes a difference, she said.

"If the teacher's been to their home, the child already knows that the teacher cares enough about him or her to take the time to go to their home," she said.

Times staff reporter Amy Roe contributed to this report.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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