When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.
This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.
“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”
The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.
Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.
“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”
A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.
“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”
Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.
Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.
The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.
As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.
As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.
Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.
That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.
The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.
De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.
Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.
Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.
Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.
Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.
Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.
Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.
“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”
Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.
“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”