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Estacada School District's home visits are on the rise to connect with families during distance learning

COURTESY PHOTO - Rather than learning from the classroom, students in Estacada are participating in distance learning.

In a semester of distance learning, Estacada students are navigating different ways of attending class, and educators are finding new ways to support them — including home visits.

As students learn from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of the Clackamas County wildfires, they need to communicate with their teacher and participate in at least one online activity to be marked present in class. Students can participate in class asynchronously but must do so within 24 hours to be considered attending.

The percentage of students regularly attending has dropped by several points at all Estacada schools. At River Mill Elementary, 91.2% are attending regularly, compared to 94.5% last year; at Clackamas River Elementary, 91.5% are regularly attending, compared to 93.6% last year; at Estacada Middle School, 90.2% are regularly attending, compared to 93.3% last year; and at Estacada High School, 87.6% are regularly attending regularly, compared to 93.1% last year.

Maggie Kelly, Estacada School District's director of communication, said that attendance was impacted by the Riverside and Dowty Road fires in September, during which 12 students lost their homes.

"In September, we were really just there to support our families and allow our students to tell their stories and connect them with resources," she said.

Since October, the district has sent attendance messages focused on encouraging students to attend class and explaining what doing so means during this unusual year.

"It's not punitive," Kelly said. "We want to come alongside you if your student is not attending."

One way in which the district is supporting students during this time is through home visits, which were previously in place at the elementary school level and have expanded to the secondary level.

"It was one tool in our toolkit for students who were struggling to get on campus," Kelly said. "They're even more vital during this time."

Connecting with families at home

Compared to previous years, more students at River Mill Elementary School and Clackamas River Elementary School have recieved home visits this semester.

"Before, we could see parents when they dropped off or pick up students, or at events. Now, we're not seeing them so we're doing more visits and phone calls," said Trevor Syring, vice principal at both of Estacada's elementary schools.

He noted 25 students from each school received home visits this year. While conducting the visits, Syring and his colleagues wear face masks and remain 6 feet apart.

"It's our way of being able to touch base with families and find out what we can do to support them," he said. "It's an opportunity to see them and continue to build rapport and relationships. We're here to serve them however they need. It's an encouragement. It's great for us to be able to say hi to families."

At Estacada High School, counselors Steven Christiansen and Cindy Babikoff conducted home visits for the first time this semester. Christiansen noted that this is a somewhat unusual practice at the secondary level.

"Elementary schools do it more often, but at the high school levels, I tell counselors in other districts and (they say), 'Wow,'" he said.

Earlier this semester, Babikoff and Christiansen visited about 50 students each. They were joined by representatives from Todos Juntos and Antfarm, nonprofit organizations that were offering homework help and other supports for students.

"We really focused on freshmen for the most part, because those are the kids we haven't met," Babikoff said.

At the elementary school level, Syring reported that around half of students who received a home visit go on to have increased attendance.

He added that one common topic of conversation is helping younger students build up the stamina to participate in online classes for longer periods of time.

"Once the kids slowly build up, it seems to work. We tell them to try to do a little more Zoom each day," he said. "Once they get on and see their teacher and classmates, they're more likely to get on again."

"A lot of teachers have gotten creative with contests to bring the whole classroom feel. That really motivates students. They're excited to see their friends even if it's just on a screen," Kelly added.

At Estacada High School, Christiansen said that "some students saw an uptick in participation, and other students didn't."

"Regardless of the data and if it's showing any improvement, emotionally it's a win," he added.

The goals of the home visits are to check in with students and cultivate relationships with them.

"It's been very well received. I haven't had any parent or student who has seemed like they didn't want us there," Babikoff said. "The way we've approached it is, we're here to check on you and we want to know how you're doing."

Students and families are asked if they have any questions and if they feel like they're getting all of the information they need.

"A lot of times we've been able to clear up some lingering questions," Babikoff said.

Christiansen said many students have shared that they miss in-person learning.

"They all want to be back at school," he said. "By and large, they usually tell us, 'I know I'm behind. I want to try to catch up.'"

Counselors also help students connect with teachers during class or office hours. Compared to the school district's first semester of distance learning last spring, both Babikoff and Christiansen have noticed an increase in students visiting their own office hours.

"This fall, we've seen much more participation from students willing to meet with you on Zoom," Babikoff said, adding that online learning requires more initiative on the student's part. "It's not the same as it is in-person. In-person, you can have those kids come to your class, whereas here you just really have to wait for them to pick up that invitation or respond to your offer to chat with them."

Whether working with families at the elementary or high school levels, those involved with the home visits agree that Estacada's close-knit community is beneficial during distance learning.

"Cindy and I know three fourths of the student body. The only ones we haven't met officially are the freshmen," Christiansen said. "It's definitely an advantage that I feel we have as counselors."

"Everybody understands each other, and we understand what we're going through and how we're all navigating through this time," Syring added.


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