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Visiting Families at Home Leads to Better School Attendance

What if you could improve a student’s attendance and achievement by getting to know his family a little better? A new study released today suggests that’s what happens when teachers visit homes on a regular basis.

The evaluation of the Parent Teacher Home Visits program found that students whose families received at least one visit from teachers a year were 21 percent less likely to be chronically absent than other students.

What's more, the impact extended to the entire school when 10 percent or more of students had home visits. In some districts, chronic absenteeism fell by at least 5 percent in these schools, and students were more likely to score better on English language arts assessments than those at other schools. In fact, the students at these home visiting schools were 35 percent more likely to score proficient on the language arts test. Math scores weren't significantly higher than those in other schools.

The study, conducted by researcher Steven Sheldon of Johns Hopkins University, looked at 2016-17 school year results for more than 100,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade in four large, urban school districts. The results suggest that home visiting could be a valuable strategy for schools trying to reduce absenteeism rates.

In a home visit, teachers meet with the family in their residence with a goal of engaging parents and caregivers in their children’s education. The first visit is always about building a relationship. Teachers ask about the “hopes and dreams” that the family has for their children. They learn about the challenges that the family endures. And they provide a connection to the school for parents who might not otherwise reach out to teachers.

[Read More: Nudging Parents and Students to Better Attendance]

We wrote last month about using nudges to reduce absences, an approach that involves providing detailed information to families about their children’s attendance rates. Home visits, on the other hand, are not designed to deliver explicit messages on absenteeism or to target students with problematic attendance, says Teresa Cummings, a consultant who oversaw the national evaluation.

“If you focus on chronic absenteeism, you’re not going to get the same outcomes,” Cummings said in an interview. “It has to be about relationships.”

Cummings speaks from experience: She conducted home visits when she was a teacher at a Title I school in California in the early 2000s. “When we implemented this at the high school where I worked, we went to any family who would let us in the door, and we saw an immediate impact on absenteeism,” she recalls. “We didn’t have it on our radar. We were just trying to improve the communications.”

She attributes the improved attendance and achievement to the change in the “culture of communication.” After a visit, the families typically feel a certain comfort with the teachers and share expectations for the children. There tends to be more conversation throughout the year and more appreciation of what students need and what challenges they face, she says. “It changes how the teacher function, and it changes teaching and learning.”

[Read More: Who's In: Chronic Absenteeism Under ESSA]

Teachers talk anecdotally about how engaging families with home visits leads to better results for their students. A study of 12 Washington, D.C., public schools by Johns Hopkins University found students whose families received home visits were less likely to be chronically absent and more likely to read on grade level in the 2013-14 school year. The latest research reinforces that the visits are associated with better attendance and in some instances, better test scores.

The Parent Teacher Home Visits program began in the Sacramento area two decades ago and now operates in more than 700 places in 25 states. The model builds off the community organizing principles of empowerment and relies on five basic practices:

  1. Visits are voluntary and arranged in advance.
  2. Teachers are trained and compensated for their visits.
  3. The first visit is always about relationship building.
  4. The visits are not targeted toward students with academic or attendance problems.
  5. Educators visit in pairs and reflect together after each visit.

The researchers found that home visits were more likely to be used for families with students in elementary schools as well as among children of color, English language learners and those with low-income backgrounds.  Because there were few visits to families of high school students, those students were excluded from the study.

One of the four districts, a mid-Atlantic school system with about 48,000 students, had some schools where as many as 88 percent of the students had families participating in the program. Researchers dug deeper and found that schools with more than half the students involved had the biggest improvement in chronic absenteeism rates.

[Read More: Tapping Federal Dollars to Reduce Chronic Absenteeism]