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School Starts Making House Calls to Get Parents of Students Involved

December 10, 1987|DAVID SMOLLAR | Times Staff Writer

FALLBROOK — The parents of children having problems with high school in this San Diego County community can expect home visits under a new program intended to improve student achievement by showing families that educators care about them.

The program was designed by veteran Fallbrook teacher Toni Bongiovanni and involves regular visits by a special community worker hired to work with parents. The worker will try to establish a link between the school and the home that, in many cases, may not be there.

If the program succeeds, Bongiovanni hopes for better attendance and better grades for students, better participation by parents in school issues, and a better image for schools among families where education has not always been viewed in a positive light.

Belief in Involvement

Bongiovanni's rationale for the program stems from both her individual belief and the conclusion of education groups nationally that the greater the parental involvement in a child's education, the better the child will do.

Both national surveys and impressions of teachers in districts across the country show that the level of family participation in student academics has dropped dramatically from years past, in large part because 20% of U.S. children live in one-parent families. Many of those families are pressed for income and worry first and foremost about keeping enough food on the table.

The result is a growing number of dropouts, along with many more students who fail to do as well in school as expected, even in predominantly middle-class communities such as Fallbrook, tucked away in the northwest corner of the county. And while many teachers realize the need for more parent contact, their time increasingly is eaten up by more classroom responsibilities.

It's not that parents don't care, said Bongiovanni, a geography and history teacher. But there is difficulty in communicating between teachers and parents.

When a student begins to show signs of doing poorly in a class, teachers usually send a note home with the student, she said. "But often the note doesn't get there, or the signature (on the return portion is forged) by the student, or the parent doesn't understand the (import) of the note," Bongiovanni said. Occasionally, students list incorrect telephone numbers for their parents with the school, making it difficult if not impossible to reach the family by phone.

"And teachers in general make few home visits, just like few doctors or lawyers or other professionals do today, or even milkmen," Bongiovanni said. "In society in general, human contact (in terms of home visits) has declined.

"Also, are we as teachers--who have seven years or more of education, who are not particularly well aid, who have 135 kids all day--going to be able to go out for free and make visits on our own time?"

Need to Work Together

Bongiovanni has made home visits herself, as well as sending out birthday cards to all her students at her own expense. But that is not typical, she conceded.

"I've found that a lot of parents who don't show up for open house or conferences with counselors still do care about the kids, but either don't have transportation or the time to come to school," she said. "In many cases, we assume that if a parent doesn't show up, then the parenting skills are poor.

"There's a real need to work together here and avoid the alienation that a lot of parents feel. . . . Some parents may have had their own bad experiences during their school years, but still, in most cases, I find that they believe education is the key to success of their child as a person."

Bongiovanni found from her own experiences that many children shape up in class after having the teacher show up at dinner time to talk with parents. "You often find out that problems are more complex or different than what you might have guessed," she said, "and the parent is grateful for the contact."

Because of the benefits Bongiovanni found on her own, she decided to set up an organized home-visit project and applied for one of many grants available from an educational fund sponsored jointly by eight major California corporations. Her Home Visit Person grant was approved for $8,000 by the California Educational Initiatives Fund, enough money to sponsor a community worker for two years on three days a week.

"For some families, the only way to get a response is to go to the home," Bongiovanni said. The home visit worker will spend five hours three days a week on the program, talking with teachers during the early part of the afternoon about problem students and the results of previous home visits. Parent contacts will be made during the later afternoon and early evening hours.

"We have no preconceived notions of how the program will work out," Bongiovanni said. "But I hope, and expect, that teachers will use it once it is in place." Teachers will be encouraged, but not required, to visit the home along with the worker.

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