This post is by Melissa Agudelo, Dean of High Tech High Media Arts in San Diego.
Like those in every other house in the neighborhood, the lawn is impeccably manicured; the hedges perfectly shaped, surrounded by flowers in full bloom. Her Mom opens the door and greets me with a fast smile and an enthusiastic handshake. The kitchen has been recently remodeled and the living room couch is new. Mom apologizes for the yapping Jack Russells in the back yard. As we sit, my new advisee comes out of the back room, trailed by her sister. We talk about the coming year in easy and friendly conversation. There is talk of the dress code and what might work in her current wardrobe. There aren't many questions, as she attended our middle school, but there is clear anticipation and nerves. We talk about teachers who have been important for her. Mom asks if she can talk in private and walks me to my car. She shares her concern about another student, simply hoping to relay what she knows to someone at the school who might help.
The drive to this advisee's home takes 28 minutes. Heading east, the green of the coast disappears halfway through the drive. Her home is brown stucco with a small yard, which is mostly dirt. Outside, everything is neat and unadorned. Inside, the living room is decorated with family portraits and a remembrance of her older sister's high school graduation. In broken English, Mom proudly shares that the older sister is already in college. I offer that I speak Spanish and Mom is appreciative but continues in English. My advisee comes out and takes the couch opposite where I am. She sits on her hands. I ask about middle school and why our school is the place for her. They share that she is the only person from her former school attending and express relief that she will have a fresh start. She tells me of the bullying she endured and her hope that she won't experience that again. Academically, she likes school and dreams of college. Mom echoes her hopes. Her aunt and her grandmother come out of the back room. We talk about my role and what an Advisor does. Mom has very few questions and seems hesitant. I turn to talk to her daughter, my new advisee. What are her hobbies? What does she like to do? She smiles coyly, answering everything. Then, as I rise to leave, Mom offers me lunch. She has some fish cooking and doesn't want me to go hungry. She wraps me a plate and I go.
He lives in a small apartment complex, just off of a busy San Diego street. I push the buzzer, then notice the gate has been propped open. I walk through and see his mother. I greet her as if we have met before and we shake hands. She invites me into a small living room whose walls are lined with portraits of the two children in the family at various ages. My jaw drops as I point to a particularly cute one of him. He smiles. Mom asks if I would like something to drink and I accept a glass of iced water. His little sister comes out and I ask if he is a good brother. She says he is, but they fight sometimes. His mother explains that his father is in the shower as he has just gotten off of work at a local restaurant. Because this ninth grader is new to our system, I start by explaining my role as advisor then ask what kind of student he is. We slip easily between Spanish with mom and English with him. Mom says he struggles at school. He has ADD but doesn't like the medication as it makes him nauseous. She was told by a teacher at his middle school that he will never make it at our school as he can't focus and won't use the work time effectively. Mom says this teacher "guaranteed" he would fail. I talk about how we can support him and work to develop the skills he needs for college. I ask him if he sees himself in college. He says he wants to be a lawyer. I tell him that will be our goal. Dad comes out and shakes my hand. Mom shares her appreciation for the home visit and that she is now much more hopeful that he will make it. As I prepare to leave, Mom tearfully tells me that his father works in a restaurant and she cleans houses. All they want is a better life for him and his sister. They take down my number for any concerns and we all hug as I leave.
Every student in our school belongs to a cross-grade advisory group that meets weekly to discuss personal plans and school issues. As an advisor and an advocate, I am expected to visit the homes of all of my incoming advisees. In the years I have been doing home visits, I have gone to dozens of homes. At first, I worried about intruding or making the families feel they were being judged. What I've come to know, however, is that spending time in the home of each student gives me insight I couldn't gain otherwise. I get to feel what home is like for them. I walk their neighborhood and get a sense of what their weekends and evenings are like. Home visits give me a window onto their world, so when I talk to them about how things are going, we can have a real conversation that balances the reality of their home and their experience as a student. Our relationship is stronger because there are things they don't need to explain.
As I try to give my advisees a sense of belonging in our school, home visits remind me that community building is a two way street. If students are to feel that they belong, they need to know that someone in the school understands the community from which they come. Deeper learning requires a huge amount of trust. In order for students to take the risks necessary to explore and articulate their thoughts and opinions, they need to feel safe, connected, valued and known. Spending the time to visit each student's home builds a bridge into our learning community and back.
Photo by Melissa Agudelo