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Q&A: Sycamore Elementary's home visit program

Amanda Harris of Sycamore Elementary visits with a kindergarten family in their home before the first day of school.

(Left to right) Lindsey Harris, reading interventionist; Melissa Usiak, principal and Amanda Harris, kindergarten teacher at Sycamore Elementary, stop for a quick pic while canvassing.

Erica Mausolf (kneeling) and Meredith Washeleski of Sycamore Elementary (standing) visit with a kindergarten family in their home before the first day of school.

Attending school for the first time is a scary thought, especially as a kindergartner. Sycamore Elementary in Holt has implemented a new way to ease the process -- through kindergarten teacher home visits.
InspirED chatted with Lindsey Harris, a reading interventionist with the Holt Schools and Amanda Monzo, mother of three students at Sycamore Elementary.
Why did you feel it was important to implement teacher home visits?
Harris: We started doing home visits with our kindergartners for a couple of reasons.  First, we wanted to be the first to welcome them into our school community. Most of these students, unless they were siblings of other students, were new to our school. As a strategy to enhance the home-school partnership, we felt that getting out into the community to welcome our students was a great way to start our school year off. We wanted to meet them in their own space first before having them come to school. Second, we found that a lot of students and their parents can have anxiety prior to starting kindergarten. As part of our visit, we bring a small welcome bag for each family. The small bag has our school logo on it. Inside the bag is a pencil, a sharpener, a CD with an alphabet song and an alphabet chart for them to listen and practice, and a short book all about our school. Inside this book are pictures of the classroom, important people they will need to know about in our school and the different places they would visit on a typical day of school. It is written in a narrative format so that parents and caregivers have the opportunity to read it to the child several times before coming to school on that first day. After our first two years of doing this, we noticed there was a considerable drop in first day of school criers, anxious students and nervous parents. The kids were ready to walk in and start learning.
The home visit practice is essential to the Sycamore culture. Staff and families look forward to the visits every summer.
Harris: We only do home visits for our incoming kindergartners every year.  This program started back in 2008 and was initiated by my other kindergarten colleague at that time, Kathleen Kish.  I had always wanted to do home visits but needed a teammate that was willing to do it as well.  After permission was granted by our principal, Melissa Usiak, we forged ahead.  Home visits are now a part of school culture and parents look forward to them every year.
Teachers take a few hours each evening for three evenings to visit students and their families. Home visits give Sycamore teachers and staff the opportunity to connect with families in their home setting, creating a home-school partnership that sets the tone for the upcoming school year.  For Mondo, the home visit was a positive experience for her as a parent, as well as for her boys.
Mondo: With kids being young and some going to school for the first time, I think it is nice that the kids get to see the teachers in their own element before they go to school. I feel it is important because if you have someone that is shy they have the support of the parents next to them to let them know everything is ok and they will be with their teacher for the school year. My boys always loved when their teachers came to visit. They know who that are looking for at school. It also made me feel easy because I got to meet them outside of the school. I always keep communication with the teachers and it is nice to know who I am emailing or what not.
Harris: The families really look forward to it and mostly importantly the students do. When I see students out in the community over the summer they always ask when we are coming. The students seem less anxious on the first day. They feel like they know who we are when they walk in the door. We also have a Welcome Day for all incoming kindergartners that takes place about two weeks after home visits. This time is used for the students to work with teachers for a bit, parents attend a learning session about reading with their child and there is a school scavenger hunt. This provides a second opportunity to meet the teachers and get to know the school. By the time the first day of school begins, some of these students will be seeing us for the third time which alleviates tons of anxiety for students and their families.
The visits have influenced a district-wide movement. The year after kindergarten visits began, the rest of the staff adopted a similar event they call summer canvassing. The program increases parent engagement and allows for interaction in students’ home setting -- an aspect once foreign to teachers.
Harris: Summer canvassing was initiated by our principal after we had done our first round or two of home visits. The idea behind summer canvassing is that the entire staff could have an opportunity to sweep the streets where our students live to welcome them back to school. Summer canvassing is designed for students in grades one through four. Similar to home visits, we do create a welcome bag for each family. We provide pencils for every child that attends our school, a sharpener and include a flyer with our first day of school reminder. This is also a time to answer any questions the family may have and just interact with families in their space. We often learn a lot from summer canvassing. For instance, we learn when families move away, meet new students that have not yet enrolled and find out what school-related questions parents and community members have about things like transportation. We, as staff members, are able to pass that information along to our school office so they have a heads up before the first day.
Along with the home visit activities, Sycamore and other Holt elementary schools have hosted a back to school picnic and an open house curriculum night, with 90 percent or more participation on both events.
What do you envision for the future of this program? 
Harris: I would love to see other grades levels adopt the home visit program that Kindergarten holds so near to their heart. There is something so powerful in meeting a student and their family in their space that allows us as teachers to understand them better. I think because of home visits I have formed better relationships with students and had more positive interactions with parents. It shows our families that we care and that we will go above and beyond to help their child be successful.
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