Ask students and they’ll often tell you the principal’s office is the place kids go when they’re in trouble. If their parents are called to the office, it is doubly bad.
And if the principal — the enforcer, the bearer of ill news — goes to the students’ home, knocks on the door, and asks to see their mother or father, it can signify the worst kind of trouble.
So when 24 University of Washington doctoral students, most of whom were principals working toward their credentials as district-level leaders, knocked on home doors last summer, young students might understandably have been nervous. This, however, was a different kind of visit, a home visit with a cultural twist and important implications for the changing role of school leaders in rapidly diversifying 21st-century schools. The purpose was to engage would-be superintendents in learning about the lives and perspectives of newly immigrated families.
The UW graduate students were part of the College’s Leadership for Learning program (L4L), which prepares administrators for district-level leadership. And, like most school administrators across the country, they had rarely, if ever, visited families’ homes unless there was a crisis at hand. "As educators, we often ask people to come to us. It’s significant going out to people, reaching out to people, asking them to help us learn," says Professor Margery Ginsberg, director of the UW’s Leadership for Learning program.
Ginsberg has worked extensively on school reform in high-poverty schools.
The homes visited by the UW students belonged to non-English speaking immigrant families — families that now comprise 48 percent of the population in some of Seattle’s urban areas. Finding ways to bridge the growing gap between these historically underserved students and their more privileged peers presents critical leadership responsibilities.
L4L students first met with Somali, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Latino and Mien translators, representing the five largest non-English linguistic communities in the Seattle area. The translators, recent immigrants themselves, advised them on cultural considerations, taught them key phrases like "Shukran," Arabic for "Thank you," and accompanied the UW students on the home interviews.
Initial questions concerned Seattle School District plans for possible school closures. But the graduate students’ goal was to push deeper in search of the "story within the story." As they sat around kitchen tables, learning about the lives of recent immigrants, they heard mothers and fathers talk about their dreams for their children, the obstacles that stood in the way, and how schools could best serve their diverse needs with bilingual school communications, transportation, translators and keen attention to children.
One Somali mother advised the leaders-in-training to "Know the problem yourself. You have all kinds of children. Don’t just listen to people. Look yourself. Go deep into the problem."
L4L students observed all aspects of home culture, trying to understand the many talents and sources of knowledge that reside in each family. They noted the ornate rugs laid on wall-to-wall carpet, the gardens and carefully tended flowers, the TVs tuned to channels in various languages, the prominent religious symbols, the hennaed hands and head scarves. They observed child-care rituals and family cooperation in the kitchen. They asked questions, and they listened.
The families showed their visitors the many ways they cared about the success of their children, including working two to three minimum-wage jobs just to put food on the table. Some parents talked about the subtle discriminations their children mentioned. Some expressed concern that their children would succumb to "Westernization."
"I shake my head as I realize just how patronizing we can be as leaders and teachers when we speak of the needs of 'our' communities," said Tony Byrd, principal of Cedar Valley Community School in Edmonds and a long-time fighter for social justice in the school system. "I have played a role in many conversations about addressing the 'needs' of our community and, in most cases, have had no true understanding of those needs."
Rainier View Elementary School was another of the schools in the UW action-research project. The elementary school’s staff is predominantly white, the enrollment 98 percent children of color. Principal Cathy Thompson says there was a serious "disconnect" between home and classroom when she first arrived in 2003. "Our school had to change. We were failing miserably, and that meant we were failing our kids."
Thompson worked with Ginsberg on bridging the school's cultural gap, including the Leadership for Learning home-visit program. After the UW project last summer, Thompson wrote a grant to keep the outreach going, and Rainier View teachers began making their own home visits.
Doors opened. Channels opened. Eyes opened.
"The home visits force us to address our innermost feelings and the biases we bring to our jobs everyday -- whether we think we’re bringing them or not," says the principal.
"As the community changes, schools need to learn and change as well" adds L4L director Ginsberg. To facilitate that change, the L4L program requires that prospective school district leaders complete internships and get to know families while also learning to design and implement systems to close the achievement gap.
When school leaders move out of the office, away from the desk, and enter the homes and lives of their students, the lessons learned can cut both ways. As some L4L students put it, "How could I not have known?"
Educational Leadership & Policy Studies
Action research project involved students interviewing families in their homes.
What students learned from the field research.
The importance for school leaders to stay involved with classroom and family perspectives.
The power of fieldwork as a learning and personal experience.
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