Every student needs a support network to succeed—something that has become even more important during the coronavirus pandemic.

This year, the White Bear Lake school district has introduced a new Parent Teacher Home Visit program that allows educators to communicate more effectively with students and their families, and give more individual attention to the needs of each student. 

John Nachtsheim is the White Bear Lake school social worker who wrote the grant for the home visit program. St. Paul schools have become a leader in adopting this program, and Nachtsheim became familiar with it while working in Duluth schools. Nachtsheim applied for funding through the Education Minnesota Foundation and received $15,000 to launch the program. 

“It’s one of the things I really wanted to bring to our district,” he said.

Parent Teacher Home Visits is a national framework applicable to any school environment. Research has shown that this program has a positive impact on students’ performance in school, as well as teacher perceptions of students and family perceptions of the school environment.

The training invites teachers and staff to build stronger relationships with students by connecting with them and their families in informal meetings. The meetings are not like conferences, evaluating a student’s performance, but more like a friendly chat about the student’s needs and goals. 

“It’s not an opportunity to bring up negatives,” Nachtsheim said. “A teacher might come away thinking, ‘This is how I might adjust my teaching based on what I learned today.’” 

Participation in the program is voluntary for both trained staff and families.

“The families are the experts,” Nachtsheim said. “That’s one of the tenets of it: What can we learn from the family to really create that relationship?” 

In Nachtsheim’s experience, the meetings help to overcome some of the distrust families might have of the education setting. It can be helpful for families to see that educators want to understand the hopes and dreams of their child, and have the same goals for their success in school. The personalized attention can also be a good collaborative opportunity to explore ideas how to support each student.

It is not meant to target students based on performance—ideally, every home would get a teacher visit, Nachtsheim said. It’s only a matter of providing the training to as many educators as possible. 

The program was designed for teachers to visit with students’ families in their homes, but COVID-19 has shifted meetings to a virtual format instead.  

“I think we need this more than ever during a pandemic, because we’re even more connected than we have been,” Nachtsheim said. “I just felt it was even more crucial right now to really build that relationship between families and school, to create a situation where if there’s a struggle with a student, we can reach out to the family and have a very open conversation and say, ‘What’s going on, what can we do to help?’”

Many teachers try to reach out and establish a stronger connection to their students and their families on their own, but the home visit program offers a more formalized structure for conducting these conversations. 

“The concept is rooted in basic human respectful, trustful relationships,” Nachtsheim said. “It’s the key to everything, especially in a time when we’re so disconnected.”

Nachtsheim has been pleased to hear so much interest in the training among teachers and staff. More than 70 staff members signed up for the first round of training, with another round scheduled for this April. 

“I’ve just been so proud of this district and how they’ve adjusted and accommodated families and students and still support a program like this one,” Nachtsheim said.

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