HEMPHILL, W.Va. — Johnathan Snead, 15, is flitting in and out of a white, vinyl-sided prefab shed that’s been converted into a bedroom. The bed dominates the room, and a crooked “home sweet home” plaque hangs on the wall. A lone window allows in little light. Each time a door opens, cigarette smoke drifts in from the mobile home his family shares next door.
As Johnathan plays on his cellphone and romps outside with his dog, Pork Chop, his mother, Carol Cannon, 44, chats with two women perched on chairs crammed in by the foot of the bed. When Johnathan settles inside momentarily, the women, both teachers at Johnathan’s high school, ask Cannon the question that’s brought them there: “What are your hopes and dreams for Johnathan?”
Cannon doesn’t hesitate: She wants him to finish high school, get a job and maybe go to college. “I want you to have better things than I ever had,” Cannon tells her son. “You don’t want to live on a check monthly by monthly. You don’t want to do that. It’s hard.”
“No college,” Johnathan responds. “It’s too much work.”
That’s not what the two women want to hear. These teachers are on a mission to ensure that the students coming out of McDowell County Schools (one of the lowest-performing districts in one of the poorest parts of West Virginia) are ready for college — or, at the very least, a well-paying, fulfilling career.
West Virginia unveiled a campaign this year for 60 percent of adults ages 25 to 64 to have earned a degree or certificate by 2030. But in this county of fewer than 19,000 residents, just 38 percent of recent high school graduates sought more education, according to the latest available data from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission. That’s well below the statewide rate of 55 percent. And in 2016 just 8 percent of McDowell County residents of working age held an associate degree or higher, compared to 31 percent statewide.
To increase those numbers, the district is trying to be more innovative and aggressive. Administrators say that McDowell is the first district in the state to deploy at every grade level a practice that has proven to give at-risk infants and toddlers a head start in life: home visiting. Only, rather than sending health care or social service providers to support parents and assess young children’s readiness for school, McDowell is sending teachers directly to kids’ homes — including high schoolers’ — to counsel, persuade and cajole them to graduate on time and plan for their future.
The success of home visits has been well documented for infants and has been studied at the elementary and middle school level, but it’s an open question whether these visits make a difference for older students, according to some experts. Home visits for high schoolers are a “very rare occurrence” said Steven Sheldon, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education who studies them. “And those tend to be home visits in reaction to real problems that have come up.”
In McDowell, educators aren’t reacting to problems, they’re seeking preemptive solutions, trying to stem the tide of generational poverty and trauma. More than half the children and nearly 40 percent of the county’s population live in poverty. “Most” of the county’s 3,000 students have been exposed to stressful and traumatic events in the home, according to the school district’s superintendent, Carolyn Falin. “Our students have high scores” for adverse childhood experiences, she said, “meaning they come to school with lots of trauma in their lives.”
In recent years, McDowell County has added health clinics in its two high schools, made in-school dental and mental health care available at all grade levels, hired graduation coaches and introduced a mentoring program in the high schools. Donations from a public-private partnership have contributed to “care closets,” with clothing, blankets, school supplies and personal hygiene products at each of the district’s 10 schools.
But even those steps haven’t proven enough to address the deep-seated needs here. “We think we know what our kids go through,” Falin said. “But until you really get out there and to their homes and have conversations with the families, you don’t.”
The home visits are set up in advance, in contrast to unannounced visits by social workers or school attendance officers. And the students selected are rarely the ones who stand out because of misbehavior or other problems in school. Cathy Jack, Johnathan’s social studies teacher, nominated his family for a visit in large part because she knew very little about him other than he’s “sometimes a little sleepy” and “stays on that phone too much.”
Carol Cannon received a letter from the school, and Cathy Jack and her colleague Pamela George, a homebound teacher for the district who is experienced in home visiting, drove out after school on the agreed-upon day. When they arrived, Jack was surprised to find Johnathan so animated at home.
As Johnathan listened, Cannon told the teachers that Johnathan has health issues and that he’s a night owl, staying up to 1 a.m. at times. He’s also heavily into online gaming. Asked what he’d like to do for a career, Johnathan told them he likes computers and might one day want “to make a video game or something.” He knows a lot about posting on YouTube, too.
The teachers also learned that there are a handful of family members in the household, including Johnathan, his mother, a sister and an infant relative. His mother confided that they were “having trouble keeping food in the house” and that she has health problems that confine her to the home. At times, she needs Johnathan there to help her. He was there when “the relationship” she was in “was beating me and choking me,” she divulged.
“It’s the truth,” Johnathan said, explaining to the teachers that he was prepared to defend her.
“He knows nobody’s supposed to hurt Mommy,” George said.
Like elementary and middle school home visits, high school home visits are all about relationship building. McDowell follows a model similar to the one set by the Parent Teacher Home Visits program in Sacramento, California. “We wanted to make our home visits different,” said Gina Martinez-Keddy, the program’s executive director. “We’re not coming to judge you, not coming to address a problem that you’re having, not coming to report you. We’re coming to build a relationship with you because we know that you’re an expert on how your child learns, and we as educators can learn a lot from you.”
McDowell County Schools has “customized” that model to allow teachers to select the families they visit and to include conversations about district concerns, such as the importance of attendance and of college and career preparedness, said Amanda Fragile Peyton, Title I director for the district, who also oversees the home visiting project. “Our model is about the kids and the families with who we don’t have a partnership yet,” Fragile Peyton said. “Those that you don’t see, that you haven’t set goals with, that are not working and supporting learning at home with you.”
In California, Luther Burbank, an urban high school in the Sacramento City Unified School District, has used home visiting for two decades, according to its principal, Jim Peterson. Although there’s no research showing a connection between high school home visiting and college and career readiness, Peterson said of the program that he “wholeheartedly believes it makes a world of difference.” The connections that the visits forge between teachers and the extremely vulnerable, largely immigrant families the school serves have impact beyond the visits themselves, according to Peterson. He tells the story of one mother who credits the home visits for turning her life around. She was an abused spouse, and was “quiet” and “nervous” in the beginning. “Now, she’s the most outspoken person you’ll ever meet,” he said.
One of Burbank’s challenges has been the extra work that home visiting requires of teachers. Despite being compensated for their time, fewer teachers have wanted to participate in recent years because “at the end of the day, they’re tired.” And “there are some who are nervous about going into the neighborhood,” Peterson said.
Yet in McDowell County, according to Superintendent Falin, it was high school teachers who pressed to add home visiting to the upper grades after the district launched the program in elementary and middle schools in 2015. They were motivated by reports from their colleagues that the visits “changed their perceptions of our students” and resulted in better relationships with them, she said.
Depending on their level of experience, teachers visit up to 10 families twice a year, fitting in the visits between late fall and early spring. They are required to attend two orientations in their first year where they learn how to be safe and to be empathetic listeners, as well as learn about generational poverty and how to have conversations about dreams and goal setting with families, said Fragile Peyton. The district also sponsored its first 3-day home-visiting conference in late November for teachers. For completing all the home visits and attending the required orientations, conference, and a spring dinner with families, they receive a lump sum of $1500.
The district will use part of a federal grant it received this year to expand home visiting beyond the 100-plus teachers who’ve already signed on, said Falin.
Jordan Franklin, 18, was one of the first high school students selected to participate in McDowell’s program. Like most students and families who are chosen, he wondered: “Did I do something wrong?”
He hadn’t, but his mother worked as a nurse, which limited her contact with the school. One of Jordan’s teachers, Debbie Krabbe, had asked for the visit, and his family was “nervous” when she arrived, he said. But they warmed up as they talked about the high school senior’s plans to better himself after graduation. On the second visit, knowing what to expect, Jordan said he promised his teacher and his family he would go to and finish college.
Jordan is now a freshman at Wytheville Community College, 68 miles across winding mountain roads and the Virginia state line from his former high school. He’s adjusted to the “hurt” of leaving McDowell and is thriving, according to one of his professors.
“I was really amazed when I heard he was coming from all the way in McDowell County,” said James Harrington, an assistant professor who heads the police science department at Wytheville. “He’s the first one.”
Ensconced in the campus library, Jordan credits the home visits — and the bond that developed between him, his teacher and his family as a result of them — for where he is today. He believes more students could benefit from teachers reaching out because McDowell students aren’t likely to ask for support. “Most of them just live quietly. They don’t really ask,” he said. “They probably never had anyone to help them before. They’ve always lived independently.”
Meanwhile, McDowell’s model is gaining attention beyond the county. Fragile Peyton said she gave a presentation on the program at the National Family Engagement Summit in Richmond, Virginia, last spring. Nearby Mingo and Greenbrier counties began implementing McDowell’s model after meeting with Fragile Peyton, who has also presented it to educators in Nicholas County.
Cathy Jack and Pamela George believe their visit will make some difference to Johnathan Snead. At the very least, Jack is planning to get food to the family for the holidays. Thinking ahead to their next meeting to discuss goals, she’ll introduce Johnathan to the coding program offered at the district’s Career and Technology Center. The teachers also identified a strong ally.
“He gets into any trouble, you have my phone number. Call me up. Text me,” Carol Cannon said as the teachers climbed into Jack’s Jeep Patriot. She promised to notify the school when Johnathan will be absent.
Jack told Cannon that they’ll pay a second visit in the spring and reminded her that her entire household is invited to the spaghetti supper in May with all the participants in the home visit project.
Johnathan stopped playing with his dog long enough to call out, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
This story about home visiting high school students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter. This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.