Elisabeth Lum, left, and her son, Kaunakakai Elementary School third-grader Akeakamai Lum, meet with Akeakamai's teacher, Malia DeCourcy.

Teacher house calls
help school on Molokai

A program inspired by a project
in California gets parents involved

It wasn't a typical choice for a boy celebrating a birthday.

Rather than have a special dinner at home, Jake Sakamoto chose to spend the evening of his 10th birthday in a writing workshop at school with his classmates and their parents.

"I wanted to go," explained the fourth-grader at Kaunakakai Elementary School on Molokai, who turned 10 on Jan. 27. "It's fun and I learn lots of things."

Fast facts
about FACT

How FACT works at Kaunakakai Elementary School:

» Teachers make personal visits to the homes of each of their students at the start of the year, bringing school supplies and getting to know the families.
» Grade-specific workshops are offered each month on campus, offering fun activities for students and strategies for parents to help their children succeed.
» A second round of home visits takes place in the spring to discuss student progress.
» The visits are voluntary for both families and teachers.
» The program is credited with boosting school attendance, student performance and parental involvement.

Such a commitment to school is rare at any age. For Jake, the seeds were planted early, by his first-grade teacher, Malia Busby, and her colleague, Malia DeCourcy, who both attended the school as children themselves.

Concerned about spotty attendance and a nonchalant attitude toward school work in their rural community, the "two Malias" decided to try a new technique. They stepped out of their classrooms and into their students' homes. The teachers paid a personal visit to each student's family at the start of the year, bringing along school supplies and inviting them to monthly workshops on campus to learn strategies to help their kids succeed academically.

"Education has changed so much since the time we were in school, and so much more is expected of the kids," DeCourcy said. "The whole point with the home visits is to set it up as a positive rather than a negative."

The results were so encouraging that other teachers followed suit. This year, all but two teachers at this small school on Molokai's south shore are volunteering to make home visits and hold workshops.

For teachers already overburdened with the demands of bringing student performance up to stringent new standards, the idea of devoting more after-school hours to the job can be daunting. But enlisting the help of parents can ultimately make things easier.

"The benefits really outweigh the time it takes to set up the workshops and do the home visits," Busby said. "I know my attendance really shot up."

DeCourcy and Busby found that their pupils did more homework, and did it better than before, as their parents took a more active role and learned the newfangled techniques used in today's classrooms. The personal bonds created through the "Families and Classroom Teachers" program also paid off in other ways.

"Any kind of behavior problem is really nipped in the bud," said Jake's fourth-grade teacher, Jennifer Wada, who has taught for a decade. "The constant contact (with families) keeps the kids on an even keel. I know FACT makes a difference because in all these years of teaching, I have never felt so supported by parents."

DeCourcy got the idea for home visits from a National Education Association workshop, which highlighted the effects of such visits in schools with chronically low achievement in Sacramento, Calif. That pilot project, which began several years ago, has spread to schools at all grade levels in districts across California and nine other states, according to Carrie Rose, director of the Sacramento-based Parent Teacher Home Visit Project.

"It's just been amazing," Rose said in a phone interview last week. "We've been followed in a couple of different independent studies, and the results have shown that schools that run home visit projects have experienced an increase in test scores, an increase in attendance and a decrease in disciplinary problems."

The program is voluntary, and teachers in California are paid their hourly wage for time spent on home visits. State funding ended with recent budget cuts, but money from local school districts, teachers' unions and private groups have kept it going, she said.

On Molokai, teachers are donating their time. Until this year, they also dipped into their pockets for the supply kits they brought to families, from dictionaries to crayons. An $11,000 grant from the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation is covering the cost of supplies for home visits and workshops for the school this year.

Castle Foundation Executive Director Terrence George said his organization normally doesn't fund on Molokai, but was so impressed with the teachers' efforts that it wanted to help.

"The reason that this project is so potentially important for the state is that it appears to have built a relationship of trust between teachers and parents, and provided parents with user-friendly ways of being engaged in the education of their kids in the public school system," he said.

"We believe that every child can be a great student, regardless of their background," he said. "But if parents themselves have not done well in school, it's hard for them to learn what positive role they can play. This program gives them that role in a way that's easy and comfortable for them."

Kaunakakai School is gathering data to document the impact of the program this year, tracking parental involvement and student performance as part of the grant. A few parents have turned down home visits, but most embrace the idea.

Parent Elisabeth Lum is a convert. She said the program is breaking down barriers that separated the roles of teachers and parents when her daughter, Ihilani, now a fifth-grader, started school. Her entire family has been involved in FACT since her son, Akeakamai, now a third-grader, was in first grade.

"I'm a true believer," Lum said. "It's built an open communication between teachers and parents. It's not intimidating for the parents. It's like a collaboration. Everyone is brought together."

Workshops offer practical tips for parents, such as how to help rambunctious youngsters focus. One technique, for example, is to tape two manila folders together into a three-sided cubicle, or "office," that sits on the tabletop and minimizes distractions.

Even something as seemingly simple as the sounds of the alphabet are taught differently these days. The letter "y," for example, is no longer pronounced "yuh," but instead as a shortened version of the sound "yee," which makes it easier for kids to blend it into other sounds.

At the workshop held on Jake's birthday, students began making their own books while their parents learned how to help improve their kids' writing and prepare for statewide tests coming up this spring.

"I find that it's very rewarding because outside of the classroom, you have the tools to help your child at home," said Cathleen Shimizu-Sakamoto, Jake's mother.

Kaunakakai is a small school, with fewer than 250 students, and its classes also tend to run small, with fewer than 15 students each, which has made the program more manageable. Still, ramping it up schoolwide has been a challenge, and Busby said offering stipends in the future might help.

"It's a strain to put on a new program every single month," Wada acknowledged. "The teachers have been generally positive, but I do think the time commitment is so great it may need to be scaled down a bit."

Some are offering their workshops over breakfast to keep their workday from stretching too long into their own family time. And two teachers decided that they just couldn't commit to making home visits twice a year and a monthly regimen of workshops.

Scott O'Brien, who is in his first year at the school, called FACT "a great program" but declined to take part because of the time involved. While other grade levels have two teachers each, he is handling the whole fifth grade -- 25 students -- by himself. He said he didn't feel ready to take on so many home visits and a regimen of monthly workshops on his own.

"I do have parent meetings on my own schedule," he said, "and an overnight field trip to get the parents involved."

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