Kimber Marie Schrock was so ready to see her kindergarten teacher that she invited the instructor to her birthday party.
Kimber showed her Warren Elementary teacher, Chris Ralph, around her chicken coop, the plants she was growing and the Lalaloopsy dolls in her bedroom. And when it came time to leave, Kimber grabbed Ralph’s hand and pleaded to show her one more piece of her home.
“How about we see that when we visit in the winter?” Ralph said.
Ralph and Warren Elementary’s Title I teacher, Jena Anderson, spent 30 minutes at the Schrock home Tuesday evening as part of the Helena School District’s home-visit program.
Initiated in 2009 from a model in Sacramento, California, the visits are intended to let children and their families familiarize themselves with the teachers before school begins.
All children entering kindergarten in Helena are required to meet their teacher before school, either through a home visit or a meeting setup in a neutral place. And the program is encouraged for sixth and ninth graders, who are also entering a grade that signifies a major transition.
Though mandated by the school district, the visits are really run by the principals and teachers who are passionate about their benefits.
Anderson and Ralph are the district trainers for the home-visit program because they both felt so strongly about the program from the start.
“I really think it builds incredible relationships with families, and it really changes how I teach,” Anderson said.
During visits, Anderson and Ralph always ask the parents what their goals are for their child and then ask the parents to participate in school programs.
Ralph said they’ve noticed parent involvement has really increased as a result.
Whitney Schrock, Kimber’s mom, wants Kimber’s counting to get better. She also happily agreed to come in and read to the students.
Ralph added that more students are turning in higher-quality homework and attendance rates are increasing.
The two teachers really emphasized the importance of creating a relationship between the school and the families. Some parents, they said, may have grown up having a bad relationship with schools or their teachers and they want to show it’s not the same everywhere.
“Hopefully it helps to change how they view school,” Ralph said.
Mary Penley, a kindergarten teacher at Jefferson, said she has taught in six different states and this is the first time she’s encountered the home-visit program.
Penley said she enjoys the program because it makes the first day easier for the students and for her.
The program isn’t beneficial just at the elementary level. Teachers visited about 150 incoming freshman at Helena High, Principal Steve Thennis said.
The biggest part of the home visits, Thennis said, is creating the relationship between students and a teacher they feel comfortable with. Thennis said he knows of students who have visited their home-visit teacher to talk before approaching a counselor.
He mentioned other school districts, such as those in San Diego and Denver, which have greatly improved graduation rates through home-visit programs, and said ultimately it would be great to be able to see every incoming freshman before school starts.
The district sets aside $10,000 each for the elementary and high school budgets to repay teachers for mileage as part of the program.
Whitney Schrock said one of her friends called up and asked what the home visits were all about.
“It has nothing to do with you; don’t worry about it,” Whitney told her friend.
It’s about the children and their teachers, and the relationship they will build.