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Bridging the classroom, home front

From high tech to living room visits, schools involving parents to boost student performance

By Laurel Rosenhall -- Bee Staff Writer

Published 2:15 am PDT Thursday, April 6, 2006

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Cory Jones and Nancy Fong, second-grade teachers at Earl Warren Elementary School, visit the home of Megan Nunez and her guardians, as part of a project to involve the family. Sacramento Bee/Anne Chadwick Williams

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In some families, a child's life at school is interwoven with life at home: Parents help with homework, volunteer in the classroom or e-mail teachers to check on grades. Teachers ask parents to chaperone field trips, organize fundraisers or donate paper, glue and Kleenex.

In other families, home is worlds away from school. Parents who don't speak English may not be able to help with homework or communicate with teachers. Those with inflexible work schedules can't volunteer in class or tag along on field trips. And some parents who had bad experiences in school when they were young may not want to - or know how to - jump back into student life with their own children.

Research shows a strong connection between home and school leads to increased academic performance, a boost in attendance and improved behavior.

At many low-income schools in the region, where relationships with parents are sometimes lacking, educators are trying to bridge the gulf. They're using everything from modern technology - computers with high-speed Internet - to old-fashioned friendliness: a living room chat over coffee.

Cafe con leche was cooking on the stove and cake lay on the kitchen table when teachers Cory Jones and Nancy Fong arrived at the south Sacramento home of a second-grade student one recent afternoon. The teachers from Earl Warren Elementary School sat down in the tidy living room of the small mobile home. Wanda and Nathan Redfern explained they had just moved to Sacramento from Vallejo and were only temporarily living in the trailer in a friend's backyard.

Megan Nunez had adjusted very well to her new school in the six weeks she'd been there, Jones and Fong told the Redferns. Jones asked what kinds of things 7-year-old Megan likes to do outside of school, and the girl showed him her favorite stuffed toys - a white cat and a purple bear.

Jones praised the Redferns for Megan's perfect attendance and strong homework habits. They asked if there was anything more they could do ensure her continued success in school. Jones said he wants students to read for 20 minutes every night in addition to completing their homework.

Then Jones asked the Redferns what he called the "hopes and dreams question." It's a core part of the home visit routine, designed to help parents and teachers stay positive about the potential for children to succeed.

"What do you see for Megan in her future?" Jones asked.

Wanda Redfern said she could imagine the little girl as a teacher - already, Megan loves to play teacher by setting up her dolls and stuffed animals as students. Jones joked that Megan would soon steal his job, and that made her giggle.

Megan is the Redferns' niece; they became her legal guardians three years ago because of her mother's drug addiction. Nathan Redfern wondered aloud if Megan had suffered any long-term damage from her mother using cocaine while pregnant. He asked the teachers if they are trained to detect such difficulties in their students.

Jones said the best way to address problems that could arise is through communication.

Nathan Redfern agreed: "That's why I mentioned it - so we're all on the same page and can help each other."

And that is the point of the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project, which brought Jones and Fong into the Redferns' home.

The project began eight years ago in the Sacramento City Unified School District. This year, 24 Sacramento City schools participate.

The program grew out of a cycle of blame in low-performing schools, said Carrie Rose, who runs the Home Visit Project.

"The parents were saying, 'The kids are failing because the teachers don't care,' " she said. "The teachers were saying, 'The kids are failing because the parents don't care.' "

That feeling is diminished with each home visit, say those who participate in the program.

"We never had a teacher come to our home; usually the parents go to the teacher for the conferences," said Wanda Redfern.

"It let us know that they're interested not solely in the child, but also in the parents, which is a good thing because what's going on with the parents will reflect on the child," she said.

This summer, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project will expand to focus on students failing the California High School Exit Exam. Teachers will visit the families of all sophomores at Hiram Johnson and Luther Burbank high schools who fail the test the first time they take it.

"Our goal is to inform the family about what the exit exam is, what it means and what resources are available to ... help the student," said Jim Keddy, executive director of Sacramento Area Congregations Together, a community group that helped create the Home Visit Project.

The organization has drafted legislation that would require home visits for all California sophomores who fail the exit exam, which students must pass to graduate from a public high school.

"Our thought is that this group of students is not only at risk of not passing the exit exam, but also likely at risk of dropping out," Keddy said.

Teachers have already begun to build connections between home and school for some students at Luther Burbank High School. As part of a new program this year, teachers have installed computers with Internet access in the homes of 22 Hmong students who arrived in the country a year ago from a Thai refugee camp.

A grant pays for high-speed Internet access, and the computers are on loan from the school. Teacher Larry Ferlazzo developed a Web site that provides online links to thousands of language-learning programs. The hope is that students and their parents will learn English faster by using these computer programs that weave spoken language with words and pictures.

In the south Sacramento home of 17-year-old Ma Vang, the donated computer sits on a coffee table pushed against a wall of the kitchen. On a recent rainy afternoon, she sat at the computer with her 3-year-old daughter and several of her husband's siblings.

"Here is the piggy. He goes oink-oink," said the computer voice.

The screen displayed the words and a picture of a pig. Eight-year-old Vue Yang read along out loud with each new sentence and animal that appeared on the screen.

"This is the sheep. It has a wooly coat and goes baa-baa."

Before coming to the United States, Vang said, she attended only a couple years of school. She wants to learn English so she can get a job.

"The pronunciation is still pretty hard," she said through a translator.

The computer allows Vang to share with her family what she's been learning at school, including the alphabet, reading and geography.

Before students were allowed to take home the computers, Ferlazzo tested them and their parents to see how much English they knew. He will test them again at the end of the year to see how much they've learned. And he's giving the same tests to a group of Hmong refugee students who did not receive home computers.

If the program proves successful, Ferlazzo hopes to expand it next year to all Burbank students with minimal English skills.

Rio Linda Elementary School District is using books to bridge the language gap - and the gap between home and school. Seven schools there have launched a Latino Literacy Project that brings families to campus for one hour a week. Spanish-speaking aides and reading support teachers encourage parents to read with their children and give them bilingual storybooks to take home.

"It helps the parents learn English and the value of the printed word, and it helps the students to maintain their Spanish," said Mary DeChance, principal of Sierra View Elementary School in North Highlands.

The school also is participating in the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project for the first time this year. DeChance said it's made a big difference - parents participate more in school events and teachers feel closer with their students.

"When you're all on the same team, the children know we're communicating and they know what the expectations are," she said.

With a strong bond between schools and families, DeChance said, teachers will be better equipped to "fulfill the dreams (parents) have for their children."

"They want their children to have a better life, to go to college," she said. "The more the school can build that partnership, the better success students will have in school."

Graphic: Getting parents involved


Research shows that children do better in school when their parents are involved in their education. Here are some ways parents can boost involvement in their children's schools:

• Join school committees, such as the PTA or school site council.

• Chaperone field trips.

• Attend events at school such as parent conferences, science nights and health fairs.

• If you speak a language other than English, offer to help the school with translations.

• Walk your child to school and get to know the staff.

• Volunteer in the classroom, the parent resource center or around campus.

• Ask the office manager at your school how you can sign up for a committee or volunteer position.

• Keep in contact with your child's teacher and other staff at the school.

• Read with your child at home.

• Check each night to make sure homework is finished.

• Talk with your child daily about how the school day went.

• Listen to your child's concerns, joys and wishes.

• Tell your children you believe in them.

Source: Sacramento City Unified School District, Parent Support Services Department

About the writer:

Palee Moua, 18, works at a computer provided to her family, who are Hmong refugees, by Luther Burbank High School officials to help them learn English faster. Watching, from left, are Van Kou Moua, 8, Palee's brother; and Xe Moua, 4, and her mother, Paka Vang, 19. Sacramento Bee/Anne Chadwick Williams

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