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Karen Kalish

HOME WORKS! The Teacher Home Visit Program
Purpose Prize Fellow 2015

A former schoolteacher and TV reporter tackles students’ readiness to learn with teacher home visits.

When I was 60, in 2005, I was at a community organizing meeting in Los Angeles with organizers from all over the country. Sister Pearl Caeser, an organizer from Texas, was telling us how teachers there were doing home visits with extraordinary results. Reading scores, attendance and behavior had all improved. I decided then and there that I had to do this in St. Louis, my home town.

I have reinvented myself several times. I was a school teacher, a consumer advocate, TV reporter, and business owner before becoming a serial social entrepreneur. In the last 22 years, I have started three nonprofits, all of which have to do with literacy, ending racism and leveling the playing field for minorities, especially African-Americans.

When I was 54, I gave my first nonprofit to the board of directors to get a graduate degree in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. My two years there were like drinking from a hydrant. I thought I had died and gone to heaven!

I moved back to St. Louis after being gone for 34 years and the first program I started there is Books and Badges which puts police recruits in low-performing elementary schools to read and write with students.

This experience made me realize how important parent and family engagement is. Too many children come to school not ready to learn. Most teachers in low-performing schools are teaching their hearts out, yet even more students are falling behind. I am convinced that until teachers get into the homes and begin a relationship and build trust with the parents, families and guardians, nothing in school is going to change academically for these children.

  • 340 HOME WORKS! teachers made 3,653 home visits last school year.
  • Students who received home visits showed improvement on academic achievement, attendance behavior and homework completion.

Home visits are not a new idea. But they’re not being done systematically and as widely as necessary. HOME WORKS! trains, supports and pays teachers to make home visits from early childhood through high school in urban, suburban and rural areas. We’re now in 22 schools – two early childhood, 16 elementary, three middle and one high school. We want all low-income parents and all parents with kids in underperforming schools to have two home visits every year to bring about a change in academic achievement. We want more young people graduating from high school and going on to college or some other post secondary education rather than going into the juvenile justice system and eventually to prison.

Since we’ve been doing home visits, school attendance has gone up and classroom behavior has improved. In a survey, students, parents and teachers all reported improvements in homework completion, and 90 percent of all parents said they felt “very comfortable” contacting their child’s teacher after the first visit.

I take the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, repair of the world, as my responsibility. When I see the need, I’ve just got to grab an ally or two, roll up my sleeves and get to work.