Champaign teachers union rolling out plans for newly compensated home visits

Champaign teachers union rolling out plans for newly compensated home visits

CHAMPAIGN — For months last fall, Unit 4 teachers championed their causes to the public through rallies, board meetings, picket lines and a strike-authorization vote.

But how serious was the Champaign Federation of Teachers about its publicized causes of smaller classes, home visits and less district-led professional development?

"We had to fight as hard as 900 teachers being ready to strike," said union President Jen White. "We had our picket schedule set and determined where to park and go to the bathroom and what to do with your trash — we had to work that hard."

Initially agreed upon on Nov. 20 and fine-tuned until early February, the terms of the contract between the union and the district show the results of that fight, with provisions on adding aides to large kindergarten classes as early as this semester, making some professional-development days teacher-led and giving $200 to teachers who use personal time to complete mandated assessments for the state's Kindergarten Individual Development Survey.

Of particular note, White said, is the addition of compensated home visits.

"That's brand new," she said. "Teachers (and other support staff) haven't gotten compensated for doing those visits."

That new wrinkle can be traced back to last year's push for the district to back a new charter school, proposed by a group of community members.

Backers of North Champaign Academy called for a new approach to education in the district — one they hoped would reduce the ever-present academic gap between white and black students. They, too, had proposed small class sizes and home visits, arguing that "traditional" classroom education failed to account for home issues that might affect some students' academic performance.

White used the public-comment portion during board meetings last year to protest the charter school, noting that funding would be diverted out of the district's schools into a likely less-regulated one should the application have been approved.

It wasn't, but the union remained aware that changes needed to be made to reach all of the district's students.

"When the charter-school application process was occurring, some members of the union met the NAACP, and we had a conversation about what we could be doing to shift our approach," White said. "The ladies we spoke to were very gracious, and we talked about teachers being more visible — being a part of that community and that becoming the norm. That isn't exactly the norm right now. That is what started pulling us in that direction."

The union and the district clashed over the issue of home visits initially, in part because what counted as one wasn't defined in the union's original proposal, and the two sides differed on what compensation would look like.

"We spent time negotiating what that would look like," school board President Chris Kloeppel said. "There were points where we negotiated getting it out, taking it off the table. That is what a negotiation is."

In the end, he said, he was pleased that home visits made it into the contract.

"I am excited about seeing the outcomes from it," Kloeppel said Monday. "We had some people conducting home visits already, and they're seeing positive results. I'm excited to see what impact it can create when it's more wholesale — when everybody is participating in it."

'It's a fair start'

White said the union had at least a "couple different versions" of home-visit ideas before the two sides came to an agreement.

The new contract pays on-schedule staffers who make such visits "the extra-duty rate" for up to 21 hours of work, or adds up to three days of personal leave for every seven hours of visits.

"I think it's a fair start," White said. "I think this will provide an opportunity to try something new to see if it works and to make sure it works as efficiently as possible."

In the works right now are training plans and guideline documents that will help interested staffers know how and why they might want to conduct a home visit, White said. Later this spring, White said some union members will "run the training by some parent groups and community stakeholders to see what they think."

"This is for them as much as it is for teachers," she said. "We want it to be respectful and be something they want."

It's important to note, White said, that the process won't be teachers just showing up on parents' doorsteps. If anything, it will look similar to home visits already being conducted by another group of educators in the district: those at the Champaign Early Childhood Center.

'Safe places for kids'

The Illinois State Board of Education requires recipients of specific grants at early-childhood centers to start their school years with visits to the homes of all students. The school calendar for Champaign's center is different from the rest of the district and the classes are smaller — capped at 16 pre-kindergartners per session — which makes the process different than it will be for other district staff.

But the goal of reaching parents where they are and establishing a team mentality between parent, teacher and student is essentially the same.

"I think houses are safe places for kids," said teacher Kate Carlson. "When we come to their house, we're classified as a safe person. So then when they get to school, it's not as scary, because 'Oh, this person was at my house, so they're OK.'"

Sign-ups for the visits happen prior to the start of the school year, with parents picking the time that works for them.

Other parents may choose to opt out of the "home" part of a visit, picking a neutral place instead.

Teacher Paula Tankersley said the center's principal, Amy Hayden, does have to explain to some parents why the visits are occurring, but many of them end up on-board with the idea.

"Some parents, their first thought is that we're there to judge them or we're there to scrutinize," she said. "And then when you explain that we want (you) to be comfortable, we want the kids to be comfortable because they're way more comfortable in their environment, parents are like, 'Oh, OK. That makes sense.' If you just say, 'The teacher is coming to see you,' I think I would put my guard up a little bit, too."

Teachers at the early-childhood center said they spend around three days making visits to their students, blocking out 10 minutes of travel time between each 20-minute visit.

"It's the (travel) that is stressful to me (more) than it is the getting ready," Tankersley said. "I can get all my materials in order, whatever, but it's 'How am I going to get from northwest Champaign to Savoy in 20 minutes — and back?' When my first one goes long, I'm like, the whole day, 'I'm going to be late.'"

The complaint isn't about having to make the visits, she said. It's a wish for more time with the students, talking or playing games; more time to learn from the parents; or even more time to eat spreads of food provided by welcoming families.

"Some of them, I've got precisely 20 minutes before I have to be in the car," she said. "And I hate to do that to people, because you do get so much information. They want to feed you. I had one and they had fruit and a whole spread. Grandma and Great-Grandma were visiting from overseas, and they know no English. But they were pointing and they just wanted us to keep eating. It's so hard to eat and talk and write, but they really wanted us to feel welcome."

'A lot of different ways'

That's not always the case — and that's not always a bad thing, either.

"It allows you to have empathy about students' environment, or lack of environment," said teacher LaVette Harmon. "And that's not to say that parents don't care. Not to say that it's not important for their kids to have certain things or certain structures. It could just be that they don't have time or they can't structure it quite the same way. So some kids might be a little more chaotic because their life was a little more chaotic.

"And as a teacher, that allows you to give them a little bit more patience — be a little more patient with them — to give a little bit more of yourself to ease that transition, ease along those skills."

For older students — and for teachers who cycle through well over 32 students a day, like those in middle or high schools — White said the union will also be working on community events that allow them to establish that "team" mentality without it being an impossible task.

"High school teachers want to talk about mindful nutrition; middle school teachers might want to host a family night at the Douglass Center," she said. "It can play out in a lot of different ways."

Teachers of older students might also want the option of visiting students who are suddenly underperforming, or students who have experienced trauma in their communities, such as fires or gun violence. Like their counterparts at the early-childhood center, they could be accompanied by aides or other support staff, such as social workers.

And just like with those from early-childhood center, the visits won't be forced if a family isn't willing or comfortable.

"We're in this if you want to get together," White said.

Visits like these will be conducted on a pilot basis in the spring, she added, with the full program planned to be rolled out in the fall.

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