It’s nearing 5:00 p.m. one Thursday evening. I am dressed to impress, a new blue pin-striped suite, a bright red tie that would create a feeding frenzy with sharks, and a nice pair of Bruno Magli shoes (oh, how I love a comfortable pair of shoes). There is one problem though: I look a little incongruous, walking down one of the most crime ridden streets in America, a street that was recently granted $8.4 million in federal dollars to redevelop the run down apartments, a street that definitely needs some cleaning up.
As I gaze down one side of the street, then down the other, I notice so many boarded up buildings. It’s depressing. One apartment had actually been burnt to the ground. This neighborhood is also notorious for gang-related shootings and countless code enforcement violations. It was colorful too; there was enough graffiti to embellish the Ghetty Museum. And I tell you, who could forget seeing the 100+ lb. Rottweiler relentlessly pacing back and forth on one rooftop. Actually I had seen this dinosaur of a canine living on that roof for about a month or so now. Interestingly, he (we’ll call him Cujo) lived on that rooftop and, from time to time, he would make his way back into the house through a window. Oh what a sight to see.
Anyways, as I walk down this bleak street, up ahead I see a group of about 8 males huddling, chit-chatting about who knows what. They were drinking 40s of malt liquor and smoking blunts; the salient smell was unequivocal—all this right in front of other kids playing football in the adjacent street. If I had to guess, I would say the males in the group ranged anywhere from 16 to 25 years old.
My hands are tied; I have to pass them to get to my destination. I approach slowly, asking myself, “What the heck have I gotten into? This might not be good.”
I get closer. They glance at me with animosity. Even though—many, many years ago—this was, in fact, my own childhood playground, I am still a tad bit nervous. The closer I get the more anxious I feel. Then out of nowhere I hear one of them yell at me.
“Is that you Dr. Wiseman.”
Oh my, what a relief. This boy—now a young man and all grown up—was a former student of mine when I worked at a nearby school. I spent so much time building a positive relationship with this student, mentoring him; what a boon that was!
“What are you doing here?” he said. We thought you were the Po-Po at first.” (in case you didn’t know, “Po-Po” is slang for the police).
I respond, “No, I am not the police. You know that. I am just out visiting families.” Then I point to the brand new school across the street and mention, “I am the principal of the new school and we will be opening in about a month.”
He was excited to see me and we talk for a few more minutes. Fortunately he graduated from high school. I was proud of him for this accomplishment and whisper to him, “You better not be causing any trouble in the neighborhood. Keep your nose clean too, okay.”
He said, “I know.”
Next, I immediately turn to the group and say, “I need ALL of you to do me a favor.”
“What’s that?” they respond.
“If you ever see anyone messing around with the school, either at night or on the weekends, I need you to kick their butts out of there.”
They quickly respond, “Don’t worry Dr. Wiseman, we got your back!”
A Bold Commitment
This story actually did happen about two years ago (July of 2008 to be precise) and it is only one of the many memorable moments I had walking the neighborhood. And as luck would have it, since that interface with the group of young men, the school has been unharmed—no graffiti, no destruction. I was out and about that Thursday evening because of the one bold commitment I made: I would visit at least 250 families before the opening of the school to personally introduce myself and invite them to a major community event.
With a list of addresses in my hand, I just started walking (and driving of course), going door to door, introducing myself as the principal of the new school. They were excited for the new school to open and flabbergast about my efforts to connect the community and the school. I cannot believe what an intoxicating experience it was. Not only was I building relationships with hundreds of families and creating buy-in—and whole-hearted support—but I was also building connections with the community as a whole. The public relations aspect was nice too; all the families I visited went out and told their friends, who in turn went out and told their friends. You’ve got to love good old fashioned word-of-mouth marketing. There was, without a doubt, a buzz throughout the community.
I actually did meet my goal of getting into at least 250 homes before the school opened that year. It sure was advantageous. I was swept off my feet when I saw all the familiar faces at our community event—the gymnasium was standing room only. The event was huge.
Now, two years later, I am working on my third round of mass home visits. Before the second year began I got into 150 homes and now with the third year fast approaching, I am pleased to be nearing the 150 mark again. That is a total of over 550 homes in three years! Yes, it takes weeks and weeks to complete each summer, but it is worth every second of your time. Now when I walk my surrounding neighborhoods, every Tom, Dick, and Harry comes outside to say hello. They know me. They support me.
Here are 10 Key Learnings and themes that came to life while visiting families on a large scale.
10 Key Learnings.
1. Always bring a colleague with you when you partake in home visits (make sure one of you speaks Spanish too). Not only is it safer to have a partner, but a companion can help navigate while you drive to homes that are not in walking distance. To help save time, I suggest organizing the addresses by means of Microsoft Streets and Maps and using a GPS device. I now use my Apple iPad to plot my course from one home to another. Here is another interesting note: Since that summer of 2008, I have been assigned three different vice principals (kudos to my two former vice principals for their promotions to principal). Visiting hundreds of homes takes a lot of time. Spend that quality time with your co-administrator; disclose with one another, build trust, and brainstorm ideas for the upcoming year. What a great opportunity to balance the task and your relationship!
2.Participating in mass home visits is, for sure, a humbling experience. You really get the gist of where our kids are coming from; more often than not they don’t have the luxuries and amenities many of us take for granted. Our kids are in a quandary every day: Some are coming from unstructured/unsafe home environments; some are coming to school hungry; some are regularly abused (mentally and physically); ad infinitum. When you experience their “world”—when you walk in their shoes—everything then begins to make sense. If you have a teacher or two struggling to connect with their students, bring them along too. They will begin to see their students through a different lens.
3. Dr. Thomas Harvey and Dr. Bonnie Drolet, authors of Building Teams, Building People, speak of building trust. They argue that in order to gain trust, one must extend their own trust—you have to make yourself vulnerable. Think about applying this idea in the school leadership arena: When you get into the neighborhood, walking proudly, making yourself visible, and representing the school; families will see that as an extension of trust. I really believe that they will, in turn, begin to trust you. And you and I both know that it is of dire importance that our families trust our schools and those leading the schools.
4. Prior to the school opening, I was obviously unable to visit each and every family. There was just way too many. One way to get into every home is to visit all new, incoming students each year. In due time, you will have visited every family. For example, if your school’s grade span ranges from sixth grade to eighth grade (a typical middle school), then visit all incoming sixth graders each year. Over a course of three years you will have, for the most part, visited everyone.
5. If time is of the essence, you have a broken leg, or you are allergic to fresh air (I was going to add the pretext, “or if gas prices are through the roof,” but that is inexcusable); then make a vow to personally call your targeted families. Of course keep in mind that a home visit is much more potent than merely a phone call!
6. To help break the ice, bring some sort of home-school communication/flyer that announces an upcoming event at the school. Let them know that you are there to introduce yourself and personally invite them to the event. This will help begin the conversations. You will, without a doubt, have a turnout like you have never seen before.
7. It is best to begin visiting homes in the late morning, say 9:30 a.m. or 10:00 a.m. More often than not, if you knock on a door between 8:00 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., no one will answer or they will come out looking haggard, as if you just woke them up. If they are not home or just not answering the door because they think you got a sales-pitch for them, always (and I mean always) leave a flyer and your business card. Prepare your office staff for follow up calls that go something like this: “Yeah, the principal came by this morning and left his/her card on my doorstep. Do you know why he/she visited our house?” Their response can possibly be, “Why yes, he/she just wanted to introduce himself/herself and personally invite you to…He/she does that all the time. Are you going to be able to attend the…? Welcome to our school. Do you have any questions that I can answer?” Not only will the parents feel extra special with the attention, but your office staff will also be able to seal the deal with second to none customer service.
8. Communities, especially in large, urban districts, are very diverse. You will, however, see pockets of neighborhoods that take on analogous characteristics—e.g., ethnicity, ways of living, culture, etcetera. They are really the same in so many aspects. It is intriguing. The first, and of course the most familiar, feature is ethnicity—one neighborhood may be predominately White, while another mostly African American, and another Hispanic, and so on. Of course this isn’t always the case; some are actually more of a hodge podge, a melting pot—so to speak. Another example that sticks out like a sore thumb is the number of multi-family dwellings in certain areas. In some neighborhoods, there may be two or three families living under one roof (well, sort of living under one roof). Actually the physical address will be for a main house on the property, but the family actually lives in an adjoining structure—sometimes a converted garage, other times in another structure on the property, and so forth. The last dynamic is the fact that each neighborhood conveys, in its own tacit kind of way, a certain feeling or tone. Some neighborhoods as a whole are pleasant and inviting; others are morose and uninviting. In other words, some neighborhoods contain no fences and have “Welcome” door mats; others have wrought iron fences with signs that say, “Beware of Dog.”
9. I’d say that about 2 out of 5 families (that may even be pushing it) actually invited me into their homes to chit-chat and talk about their child’s education. Time and time again, those who did invite me into their homes—whether it was a house, an apartment, or an adjoining structure—had meticulously clean yards and pleasant family rooms. It was obvious there was a sense of pride. And the majority of those that didn’t invite me in, well, to be absolutely honest, I think they were self-conscious of their bleak surroundings. The up-keeping of the non-inviting parties (both on the outside and what I briefly saw on the inside from the door) was obviously sub par. Yet, keep in mind that whether they invite you in or not your objective is, first and foremost, to build trust and let them know that you are there to support them and their child.
10. The last, but definitely not least, key learnings is this: Be careful when you see a “Beware of Dog” sign. I will never forget the time I had to run for it with Cujo right on my tail. I jumped over that fence so quickly, barely escaping the infamous lockjaw. That was definitely no storm in a teacup; it was some serious stuff to say the least.
In education, the majority of school initiated parent contacts, whether they are phone calls home or actual home visits, are for students with behavioral issues, attendance problems, Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs), and so forth. We are oftentimes telling the parents what they already know: “Johnny is in trouble again,” or “Jane is failing again,” or “James missed school again.” It starts to sound like a broken record to them. As a matter of fact, these struggling students can make up anywhere between 10% to 20% of the student body at any given school. Now if you look at it from the other angle, you will see that approximately 80% to 90% of the families do not have a child slipping through the cracks. Those families, on the other hand, are not communicated with on a personal level too often. It is rare for them to have a rich interface with school officials, let alone the principal.
To put this into perspective, if your student body consists of 800 students, then anywhere between 720 and 640 families are not reaping the benefits of personalized parent contacts. That is unacceptable. Don’t get me wrong, the whole equity versus equality in education makes perfect sense, but changing a school culture only begins when we take the time to recognize, support, and nurture each and every one of our families, not just a handful. Home-school relationships are oh so important!
If you are a penchant for improving the culture of your school, if you have a strong desire to make a difference in your community, then put your shoulder to the wheel right now and go visit some homes.
Perry Wiseman, author of Strong Schools, Strong Leaders: What matter most in times of change