Like most mothers, Angela wants her daughter to do well in life – to succeed in ways she hasn’t even imagined.
But earlier this year, she watched Quentajah struggle.
“My daughter kind of got lost on me for a minute,” she says.
A minute can feel like a lifetime in the eyes of a mom, and Angela remembers feeling helpless as her daughter’s grades bottomed out.
Angela wondered if this was going to define Quentajah’s experience at Vashon High School. A St. Louis teenager’s battle to stay afloat at a long-struggling public high school? She didn’t like the way that story ended.
But then two of Quentajah’s teachers called requesting a home visit. As Angela recalls, it was a turning point for her daughter.
A 2018 Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund grantee, HOME WORKS! connects teachers to parents with home visits that involve and empower the entire family.
The goal is to build trust and relationships, and ultimately to show parents how to engage their children academically and support the schools in the place where it matters most: at home. Part and parcel of that is allowing the teachers to see their students in the broader context of their daily lives.
Angela was suspicious at first, worried the teachers and program administrators were going to use the home visits “to be nosy” and stir up problems for the family.
“But I found out differently,” she says. “They actually care about our students and their well being.”
With personalized attention, the school staff rallied around Quentajah.
Quentajah’s 10th grade teacher, Natasha Hurd, began to feel like a sister to Angela. They were communicating about everything – from tests and homework, to Quentajah’s confidence levels and daily ongoings.
And in time, Quentajah’s grade point average not just climbed, but skyrocketed. She went from a 0.9 to what is now a 3.5.
“It was the hard work that she put in, and it was the hard work that they put in,” Angela says. “Now she’s back.”
Expanding Its Reach
There are countless stories like Quentajah’s that prove the HOME WORKS! model of parent and family/teacher engagement is working.
The organization takes a holistic approach, looking to improve academic achievement, attendance, classroom behavior, attitudes about school – the works.
With support and resources provided by the program, HOME WORKS! teachers identify students who could benefit from extra help then arrange two visits per year.
The initial visit is to build trust and relationships, to assess the student’s needs, and to set goals. The last is to follow up and measure results. In between, parents keep close contact with the teachers and program support staff, working on meeting benchmarks and monitoring progress.
The goal, no matter the grade level, is to put students on grade level and on track toward graduation, then further education, whatever shape it may take.
This is HOME WORKS! second year as an SOS grantee, and the ongoing funding is crucial to the organization’s ability to grow and adapt to students’ needs, said Karen Kalish, HOME WORKS! CEO and founder.
The organization runs entirely off donations and grants from corporations, family foundations, individuals and SOS.
“It means the world to us,” Kalish said. “Donors like SOS exist to help people, and we can’t do our work without them.”
These funding sources have become even more essential as the non-profit looks to expand its reach in early childhood through high school, and in urban, suburban and rural districts in Missouri.
The work at Vashon High School has served as an exciting test kitchen for all there is to come.
A Test Kitchen for Success
HOME WORKS! goals can feel particularly lofty at the high school level, where students tend to become more independent.
That dynamic perhaps explains the hunger for the program that HOME WORKS! has discovered in Vashon parents.
“This has been an exemplary school,” said Betty Tobler, HOME WORKS! program leader at Vashon. “The parents are very receptive, they want their visits, and they’re seeing a difference in their kids.”
When HOME WORKS! staff first got involved with the school in 2014, they faced an uphill climb. The high school had been identified as a trouble spot in the district’s plan to turn St. Louis Public Schools around. Attendance records were abysmal, and grades weren’t much better.
Nearly 45 percent of students were homeless and the school had a 180 percent dropout rate, Kalish said.
“When Vashon came to us and said they wanted HOME WORKS!, my palms were itching to get in there,” Kalish said. “But I thought, ‘How are we going to do this with high schoolers? They don’t want us to come into their homes.”
School administrators decided to put the question to students, and the response was overwhelming.
When HOME WORKS! held its first family dinner at Vashon – a chance to recruit participants and provide testimonials on the strength of the program – the library overflowed to the point where it was standing room only.
Today, four years later, the school still fights to improve academics, with students showing on average a fifth grade reading level. But there are signs of progress.
Principal Brenda Smith said the school’s 12th graders are boasting a 91 percent average attendance rate. And that fifth grade reading level? That’s up from a third grade reading level when she first became principal.
Vashon has completed 205 home visits through the HOME WORKS! Program, which puts them on the leaderboard among program participants.
“Our HOME WORKS! teachers are taking the time to get to know these families at their homes, trying to create a positive bridge toward increased learning,” Smith said.
Tobler sees the difference in every single student.
She also sees it in the parents, who speak eagerly of what their children are accomplishing. And she sees it at the family dinners, which give parents the chance to break bread with teachers and have a positive experience.
Vashon’s family dinners continue to draw an overflow crowd, just as that first one did back in 2014.
“Children simply do better when the home and school work together,” Tobler said.
“I’m So Proud of My Boy”
The line of parents and students snaked around the library, as steam rose from several chafing dishes set out in a row. Tacos and nachos were the evening’s meal, and the successes of the HOME WORKS! program were to be the night’s common conversation point.
As Smith and others heralded the program, the parents and students eagerly chimed in, swapping stories and responding with applause as certain high marks were mentioned.
Rachael Fenner, a 10th grade reading teacher at Vashon, stood with a smile on her face.
It is her third year of being involved in the HOME WORKS! Program, and on this night, she was enjoying the opportunity to connect with parents in a way that never takes hold in the standard parent-teacher conference.
“I think for both the teacher and the student or parent, (the program) kind of broadens your perspective of the other person,” she said. “The relationships are better, I have more to talk with them about, and that leads to bigger things. It makes it feel like a community.”
She spoke of one student who went from an “F” to a “B” in her class, in a span of just a couple months.
“I think HOME WORKS! was a big part of that,” she said. “It helped build trust between us, and that helped him feel more confident coming to class and doing his work.”
The boy’s mother, Shawnte, sat at a table across the room. When asked to share her experience with the program, she was eager to sing its praises.
Shawnte said when she was in school years ago, there was a similar program that was well-received by the community. But for whatever reason, it ended. She hadn’t seen anything else like it until HOME WORKS! came along.
“I had wanted something like this to come back and I guess God heard me,” she said.
Shawnte said she welcomed the teachers’ visits, wanting to see her son’s GPA improve, as well as his math and reading skills.
HOME WORKS! gave her a plan to follow with her son, as well as an array of educational tools that the two could use at home.
Since then, she said, her son’s GPA has risen and he has received several awards for reading – pictures of which decorate her phone.
“He’s matured a lot, he’s working hard and it gave him motivation. I love that,” she said.
“I’m so proud of my boy.”
For Tobler, stories like that one prove HOME WORKS! is onto something. Many educational nonprofits will limit their work to the elementary level, she said, feeling that by the time kids reach high school, it is too late to make a difference.
“We don’t feel it’s too late. We feel it’s never too late,” she said. “You take them where they are at and move them forward as far as you can. Often, they’ll even surprise themselves with how far they can go when given the chance.”
*Some individuals’ last names have been removed to respect their privacy
Narrative developed and written for Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund by Jennifer Mann of
. Photos by Nick Schnelle for HOME WORKS!