By Natalie Pate

The (Salem) Statesman Journal

SALEM — Katrina Ohlemiller spends most of her afternoons and weekends not at home but at the homes of her students.

To get ready, the Hoover Elementary School teacher dedicates dozens of hours a month preparing school supplies, scheduling meetings and traveling to where families are most comfortable.

She’s part of a growing movement of Salem and Keizer educators to make Parent Teacher Home Visits more common practice, with local organizations doubling the program’s funding and providing incentives for staff to foster deeper relationships with their students’ families.

The benefits of the visits extend beyond eliminating barriers and ensuring families are involved in their children’s education. Students become more likely to attend school and score higher on standardized tests.

About 650 staffers across Salem-Keizer Public Schools have been trained for home visits. And they want that number to grow.

“That phrase, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ is something that I strongly believe in,” Ohlemiller said. “I am trying to build community and find out how we can work together to best support their child.”

Last year, Ohlemiller made three 30- to 60-minute home visits for almost each of her 19 students. She also made certain every student got between 40 to 75 books.

If families aren’t comfortable meeting at home, she meets them at public spaces like a park or coffee shop. If they don’t have school supplies, she buys them crayons, scissors, glue sticks and pencils. And when families are skeptical about why she’s there, she simply explains she cares about their child and wants the best for them.

Ohlemiller’s been making home visits since 2004 when she taught in Forest Grove and started doing them in Salem-Keizer when she moved in 2016.

She recognizes the visits are a time commitment not all educators can make, but she argues it’s a game-changer.

Home visits have a lasting impact on student outcomes, according to research from groups such as Johns Hopkins University.

Students who get home visits are about 20% less likely to be chronically absent and 35% more likely to score higher on certain standardized tests.

Salem-Keizer teachers are not required to participate in the Parent Teacher Home Visit program, but the Salem-Keizer Education Association is trying to make them more regular by providing educators training and financial incentives.

To do so, they’ve partnered with the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation, which has given $5,000 to support visits since last year. This year, because the association is also contributing $5,000, the funding totals $10,000 for the first time.

The money is used to reimburse each staff member $35 per visit, which requires two people. Organizers hope this can help offset the time-consuming nature of the program. That said, $10,000 is used up quickly.

There were 212 paid visits in 2017-18 and 2018-19 combined, according to the association. This was before the money was increased.

But when the funding is gone, teachers often continue the work without the financial incentive. As a result, it’s not truly known how many visits are made each year.

Mindy Merritt, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association, said the money can feel like “a drop in the bucket” when it’s used up in a matter of weeks. Nonetheless, the value remains the same.

“For many students, (the home visit) is the first time they have ever heard their own parent share a hope and dream about their child’s future,” she said.