On a dark early evening in November, Channing Woodsum climbs the stairs of Maria's 36th Avenue apartment building in East Oakland. He is greeted with the message "VIOLENT GANG OR DONT BANG BITCH" scribbled repeatedly on the stairwell walls. On the third floor at the end of a narrow, unkempt hallway, Woodsum knocks loudly on the door. A TV blares from inside, grows soft, and several hushed voices speak in Spanish before a teenage boy tentatively cracks the door.
"We're from Maria's school," Woodsum announces in a firm but affable greeting. A tall, brawny 66-year-old, with a guttural voice and glasses that rest on his nose above a bushy grey mustache, he is dressed in his standard garb of saggy jeans and button-down work shirt. Woodsum hands the boy a roughly designed business card. His presence is both jovial and unyielding, a difficult man to slam the door on. "You must be her brother. Are your parents home?"
Woodsum is a veteran of almost forty years teaching English in the Oakland public schools. He retired from the classroom in 2007, but was hired last year by the principal of Media Academy High, a small school in Fruitvale where he most recently taught, to continue visiting students' homes as the school's official "Home Visit Coordinator." While he occasionally attends the homes of high-performing students, the visits are generally intended for ninth and tenth graders who are failing classes, acting out, rarely attending school, or, most commonly, all three. Labeled "the last line of defense" by one school staffer, the visits are sometimes requested by teachers. More commonly, however, Woodsum compiles his caseload by combing through attendance records and report cards. Shortage of supply is never a concern.
In the course of his career, he has become well-known by teachers and students for his visits, of which he's conducted more than one thousand. Maria's house is his third visit of the night, and one of the hundred he intends to do throughout this school year.
Primarily intended to encourage parental involvement — typically sparse at Media Academy — the visits offer Woodsum a glimpse into students' living conditions, particularly notable in a school where many children come from communities plagued by violence and poverty. In a school district that consistently struggles, and commonly fails, to meet state and federal testing goals, many frontline educators argue that poverty and community disenfranchisement are commonly overlooked as factors that strongly influence academic performance.
Woodsum jots down observations and hopes that teachers review them, although he admits to being unclear on how many actually do and how they might use the information to help shape their teaching practices. He describes visits he's made to students who never complete their homework, only to find homes completely devoid of furniture.
His visits have taken him to some of Oakland's roughest neighborhoods, where poverty and violence are everyday realities, and certain living conditions resemble those of undeveloped countries. He's entered homes with suspected child abuse, seen both parents drunk or cracked-out during the day, and found students not living with their legal guardians. In one instance, he found a student who had been left alone for nearly a week, and on a number of occasions, he has had to contact Child Protective Services. It's not uncommon, he says, to visit students staying in illegal rentals or condemned houses, including whole families living in converted one-car garages. On one visit, he talked with a grandmother who sat in the middle of a living room strewn with garbage, and last year, he visited a home with broken windows and a front door that dangled from one hinge. Among the most depraved conditions he's seen was a condemned building where one of his students lived in an apartment with a clogged sink and raw sewage in the yard.
"The visit provides a level of insight," he said. "It gives you a feel of what's happening; a realistic sense if a kid has support to do homework."
Woodsum emphasizes, however, that he just as often finds students living in pleasant accommodations with warm households and genuinely concerned, if uninformed, parents. Although caught off guard, most families are generally pleased that the school is actually taking an interest in their kids' education, and only very rarely has a family member reacted negatively and not let him in. On occasion, he's even invited to stay for dinner.
Woodsum and a reporter stand awkwardly inside the small one-room apartment. Maria — not her real name — is a slight girl, with deep, sharp eyes, a ninth grader who has already cultivated a .9 GPA and a long list of gripes from her teachers in her first three months of high school. She sits on the edge of a large bed, leaning against the wall, silent and seemingly unconcerned by his visit, a blanket across her lap and hand resting on an open notebook. Next to an inflatable plastic guitar-shaped bottle of Corona beer tacked to the wall is a baseball cap that says "Cockfight" on the brim. A portrait of the Virgin Mary hangs nearby.
Maria's father sits on the other side of the bed, disinterestedly staring across the room at the TV. He glances at us and returns his gaze to the Spanish-language soap opera on the screen. Maria's older brother, a hefty young man with a sizable black eye and large abrasion across the right side of his face, sits on a chair next to the bed, finishing a plate of food. Marie, her parents, and two brothers all live together in this one room.
The purported positive impact of teacher home visits on student achievement and parental involvement have spurred the practice in a number of schools around the country in recent years, especially those in urban, low-income regions where student achievement and parent participation are often sorely lacking. While many participating schools follow standard protocols, Woodsum's approach is fairly unique, and somewhat contentious, in that he almost always shows up unannounced. It's a routine he insists on, but one that some in his field consider a breach of privacy, an unnecessarily voyeuristic act, and one that raises the issue of how much teachers should really know about their students' lives.
In 2006, California legislators allocated $15 million for a program aimed at improving communication between schools and parents in districts statewide. The Nell Soto Parent/Teacher Involvement Program, which is being discontinued at the end of this school year due to budget cuts, offered one-time grants of up to $35,000 to pay for trainings and teacher time at schools where a majority of teachers and families agreed to participate in home visits. According to state department of education records, sixteen Oakland schools were awarded the grant.
The model was partly inspired by the Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project, a program that started in the Sacramento school district in 1998 and, after initial positive results, is now its own nonprofit and active in 41 of that city's largely low-income schools. Intended to involve parents as "co-educators," the program also encourages teachers to volunteer to participate and receive compensation for visiting the homes of a broad cross-section of their students. And although the goals are similar to Woodsum's, the approach is a significant departure.