House Calls 

Channing Woodsum drops in unannounced at the homes of underperforming students. What he learns is eye-opening.

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"In our model, we never go unannounced," said Connie Rose, the project's Executive Director, noting concern for the families' time and privacy. "We're really big on making sure it feels mutually respectful. ... It wouldn't make sense for us to drop in on someone; we're not interested in assessing them, we're interested in engaging them."

But to Woodsum, advance notice would make him miss out on a critical piece of the puzzle. "I like to catch them unprepared," he said as he drove down a street in Fruitvale in his worn 1980s BMW, looking for a building number. "I don't give them a chance to straighten things up."

Despite being large, white, and overtly conspicuous in many of the communities he visits, Woodsum has lived and worked in the Fruitvale district for nearly three decades, and personally knows a handful of students' families. His wife is Mien, a member of a Southeast Asian ethnic group, and he's been involved in the local Mien community since 1980. Neighbors refer to him as "Janx-Ong," or grandfather, a moniker he accepts with pride.

A part-time contractor and landlord — an occupation revealed by the paint chips permanently encrusted in his brawny, calloused hands — Woodsum has also owned upward of 175 low-rent properties in and around East Oakland at various times throughout his teaching career, a few of which his students have lived in. He only recently sold off his remaining holdings, and in an effort to connect with the families he meets, he routinely offers home-related help, whether it is fixing minor plumbing problems, or counseling a family on how to avoid foreclosure.

Back in Maria's apartment, her mother rises somewhat apprehensively to greet Woodsum. She speaks no English and Woodsum no Spanish. He attempts minor small talk with the younger brother, then asks him to translate (for obvious reasons he almost never asks the student he is visiting about to do the translating). The boy nods reluctantly, and Woodsum begins rattling off details of Maria's poor academic standing. He reads through all five of her teachers' comments and the grades she's received on her first report card. Although the boy translates this news selectively, the mother gets the gist and nods solemnly, her head bowed. Several of the teachers write that Maria is a smart girl with the potential to do well but has a bad attitude that gets in the way.

It is midway through the fifteen-minute visit before Woodsum addresses Maria directly for the first time. He asks her why she's doing so poorly in math. "He doesn't even teach, so I don't even care what he has to say," she replies defiantly, speaking for the first time since his arrival.

In a paternal tone of voice, Woodsum asks: "But isn't your goal to graduate high school?"

"Yeah, but it's not as easy as it is to say," Maria responds. She pauses, staring down at her notebook. "Never mind, you don't get me."

By the end of the visit, Maria has let her guard down slightly, as Woodsum breaks from the academic talk and spends a minute trying to engage her in more casual conversation. He tells her he lives in the neighborhood and before we rise to leave, says: "I'm going to come back in the spring. I hope to come back and show your mom improvement." Maria stares past him for a moment, and then looks down at her binder. "Hopefully," she says.

Woodsum stepped into his first Oakland classroom in the spring of 1969, filling a mid-year vacancy at East Oakland's notoriously rough Castlemont High School. That year, between January and March alone, he says, a total of nine teachers had started the position and abruptly resigned. "When I started, my students said, 'Oh, you're not going to last more than a week,'" he recalls, grinning. "It was the beginning of my realization that there needs to be a connection with the school and the community, especially the parents."

Despite strong discouragement from his principal at the time, who expressed serious concerns for his safety, Woodsum soon began visiting some of his "real problem kids." After these visits, he recalls, student behavior often improved markedly.

While some kids find themselves in hot water with their parents as a result of Woodsum's reports, he claims that they're rarely angry at him afterwards. A few days after Woodsum's visit, Maria said she had anticipated the whole thing and wasn't too bothered by it. She added that she might now try a bit harder in school. One teacher at Media Academy noted that Woodsum's visits often do motivate students in the short term, although the effect usually wears off fairly quickly.

"Students I visit, they have a different attitude toward me," Woodsum said. "Now I know what they know, whatever that is. I know a little more about their situation. It's nothing I can really put my finger on, but there's a difference."

There have been times, however, where the visits have reaped unintended consequences. Several years ago, Woodsum came to the home of a student nearing graduation whose GPA had rapidly declined. He spoke with the boy's father, who later beat his son so badly that the student ran away from home and was found weeks later with his mom in Florida.


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