RENO, Nevada — Sitting across from his teachers, in his dining room, sixth grader Abraham Chapa crossed and uncrossed his ankles, twitching his feet beneath the table.

His mother, Elizabeth Aguilar, mirrored his movements.

As the mother and child fidgeted, they listened raptly to the two teachers who had made the short drive from Dilworth STEM Academy to visit the family’s sunlit apartment just east of Reno.

Their goal: Meet Mom.

“We just want to get to know you,” Kelly Mitchell, a P.E. teacher at Abraham’s school, told Aguilar, who promptly turned off a telenovela.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Amazon and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab

Educators have long known the value of parental involvement in a child’s academic success. Studies have shown that stronger family engagement in school can promote better performance in the elementary grades — and in later years, help pave the path to college.

But navigating the tangled bureaucracy of schools can be difficult. For some parents, language barriers present even more difficulty. Others may come from a culture that places a near-sacred trust and authority in educators, adding a layer of intimidation for parents with questions. And schools have long relied on families coming to them for curriculum nights or teacher conferences, another potential hurdle for less well-off parents who work the late shift or lack reliable transportation.

So in Reno, they have tried something different: Unleashing an army of teachers to get to know parents in their homes.

The results appear promising — and have attracted attention in the Seattle area — as the home visits have a strong link with fewer student absences and increased proficiency in English and math, according to new research.

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“It might not always be obvious that simply strengthening relationships among families and schools would be associated with concrete academic and social-emotional outcomes for students, but it is,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, an organization that pushes for policies to improve school attendance.

Since 2009, the program in Reno has grown from three schools to 25  campuses now. Teachers in schools that receive federal money to support low-income students — known as Title I funds — can volunteer to conduct home visits. Then, they randomly select parents, call them to arrange a visit, and stop by the homes or meet them at another location, off campus, that feels more comfortable to them.

Last year, teachers and school staff visited the homes of 1,281 students — about 9 percent of total enrollment at participating schools.

Seattle Public Schools once had a grant to use the same home-visit model. But the money dried up and the district didn’t commit its own funds to succeed the grant — halting a program that advocates say could have helped a district struggling with rising inequality.

The Reno model has since earned attention elsewhere in the Puget Sound region: The Road Map Project, a coalition of South King County school districts, flew educators from Northern Nevada to SeaTac for an August institute to share what they know about family engagement.

As Seattle’s tech boom makes living in the city less affordable, schools to the south have seen their share of underserved students — English learners, children living in poverty, students of color — rise by double digits. So expecting their families to engage with schools in traditional ways won’t work, said Carlina Brown-Banks, Road Map’s senior director of community engagement.

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“We used to only talk about how to fix parents,” Brown-Banks said. “That conversation has changed to how can we support schools to support parents.”

Before anyone adopts the approach here, they might learn from Reno’s early missteps. The program has evolved since its start, and district administrators now follow a set of five clear-cut rules that emphasize safety and inclusion.

Teachers, for example, participate at will. And many of those who do evangelize its value. At Mitchell’s school, 85% of teachers have joined the program.

“It’s a huge part of what makes me successful,” Mitchell said before knocking on Abraham’s front door.

Building relationships

Last year, nearly 500 educators in the Washoe County School District logged at least one home visit. The district, headquartered in Reno, spans more than 6,000 square miles in the northwest corner of the Silver State.

The district trains teachers to have no agenda when they greet parents. There’s no missing homework to review, no discipline problems to discuss. Instead, they hope only to build new relationships. The visits, recent research has found, also help dispel any assumptions teachers made about a student’s home life.

“A lot of teachers who don’t home visit see a kid’s dirty clothes or not having a pencil as a sign that their parents don’t care,” Mitchell said. “We show them that’s not true. Those labels aren’t true.”

The approach started not in Washoe, but in a city in Northern California.

Twenty-one years ago, community organizers in Sacramento discovered that some teachers informally started their own home visits. The superintendent tagged along, and a small pilot of eight schools spread districtwide.

“Now we’re in some 700 communities” in 26 states and Washington, D.C., said Gina Martinez-Keddy, one of the early organizers who now heads the national Parent Teacher Home Visits project.

Moving the model to a new region is never simple, and it can bring a specific set of challenges: In Reno, early volunteers brought food and other gifts, suggesting teachers needed to bribe or reward less-affluent families to participate. The district now strongly discourages that practice when it trains teachers.

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In Abraham’s dining room, the visit revealed an unintended benefit: As Abraham’s teachers explained how he could earn college credits in high school, Aguilar quietly mentioned she too hoped to attend college.

“Oh, that’s an easy one,” said Dena Bodecker, a parent involvement facilitator at Dilworth, before breathlessly describing a grant that Aguilar could tap to pay for a dental assistant program. “Ask us for help filling anything out — anything.”

“We can learn together,” Aguilar said to her son, holding his hands in hers.

“Take care of your family”

Across town on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Traner Middle School math teacher Tara O’Brien eyed a weathered Chevy Blazer from the kitchen in seventh grader Freddy’s home.

The 12-year-old had just finished explaining why he enjoys restoring older vehicles with his dad, when mother Maria Diaz posed a question to O’Brien. Each year, the family observes Semana Santa — the Holy Week before Easter Sunday — with a long visit to their hometowns in Jalisco, Mexico.

“Is it worth missing that much school in April?” Diaz asked.

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O’Brien had a ready answer: “Take care of your family,” she insisted. “We can work around that.”

Diaz initially worried that O’Brien requested the meeting because her son was in trouble. But after the visit, she spoke highly of it.

O’Brien appraised it similarly. As part of the program, one of the five non-negotiables is that educators conduct the visits with another staff member, and after the visit, reflect with their partner.

Martinez-Keddy, the national director, said that requirement helps overcome the most common barrier she’s seen with teachers trying home visits for the first time: “fear of stepping into the unknown.”

Tara O’Brien, left, who teaches seventh grade math at Traner Middle School in Reno, chats with student Freddy Ramirez Diaz and his mother, Maria, during a home visit. Studies have shown that students at schools with home-visit programs generally have higher test scores and better attendance. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Tara O’Brien, left, who teaches seventh grade math at Traner Middle School in Reno, chats with student Freddy Ramirez Diaz and his mother, Maria, during a home visit. Studies have shown that students at schools with home-visit programs generally have higher test scores and better attendance. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Other non-negotiables include making the visits strictly voluntary for both teachers and parents, focusing first on building relationships and paying teachers for each visit. There’s long been a federal block program that pays for home-visiting programs for very young kids, but it stops at kindergarten. Increasingly, the national organization in Sacramento has encouraged interested districts to tap Title I funds for home visits for school-age children.

An independent evaluator from the University of Nevada, Reno found one broken non-negotiable: The national program insists teachers don’t target specific students for visits, mostly to avoid social stigma. Instead of choosing students randomly, more than two-thirds of participating Reno teachers reported in a survey that they select students for specific reasons, including bad behavior and attendance or academic performance.

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The district has built a central database to track home visits, and administrators reach out to teachers who appear to be targeting certain types of students.

“It concerns us when they flat out say, ‘I’m just visiting all my students with behavior problems,’” said D’Lisa Crain, the district’s head of family-school partnerships.

“Lots of families have historical mistrust (with government). They don’t want somebody else coming to their house and telling them what to do or how to be a parent,” she added.

Bringing the visits home

In the Seattle area, a structural difference might make adopting the Reno model tricky.

School districts in Nevada span counties, so they cover wide swaths of land where students move in and out of schools. With about 100 schools governed by one central district, that makes it easier to train educators centrally on a program as intimate as the home visits. If a child switches schools within that county, they’ll still be in the same uniform program.

King County, on the other hand, is split among 19 separate school districts. In a handful of those districts, including Seattle, a few stray schools ask teachers to conduct home visits — but typically for a specific type of student, like incoming kindergartners who don’t speak English at home. None has a program as widespread and uniform as Reno’s.

If Seattle schools adopted the Reno approach, families leaving the district for more affordable Renton or Tukwila would no longer benefit — and they’re the ones who often need extra help. So, Brown-Banks with the Road Map Project said it might make more sense for counties — or nonprofits — to jump-start a regional home visit program.

“This might be something we can scale out and not centralize in just one district alone,” Brown-Banks said.

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If replicated in the region, home visits could possibly break through the growing division between the haves and have-nots — so it’s not just the English-speaking parents who work 9-to-5 jobs and know which levers to pull when they need to advocate for their children.

Math teacher Tara O’Brien takes a selfie with student Freddy Ramirez Diaz after a home visit with his family. The photo will be posted in the hallway at their school. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Math teacher Tara O’Brien takes a selfie with student Freddy Ramirez Diaz after a home visit with his family. The photo will be posted in the hallway at their school. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

The teachers in Reno helped Abraham and Freddy’s moms discover those levers, such as advanced courses and financial aid.

In Freddy’s living room, O’Brien helped him share the news of his placement in Dean’s Future Scholars, an intense mentorship program that could steer him to and through the neighboring University of Nevada.

Across town, as Abraham’s teachers prepared their farewells, they suddenly remembered what his mother needed to know: After making so much progress in his new language, Abraham no longer was considered an English learner.

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“That’s a good thing?” Aguilar asked.

“That’s great news, Mom,” Bodecker replied. “That is the result of a lot of strong work.”

They celebrated with a selfie before the teachers hugged Abraham and his mother goodbye.

Two days after that embrace, Aguilar stopped by her son’s school and took the teachers up on the offer they had made in her living room.

She was ready to go back to school.