AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
At a school in Murfreesboro, Tenn., kids aren't the only ones getting on school buses. Teachers are, too, and they're knocking on students' doors to introduce themselves. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports that these visits can be a real eye-opener for teachers and parents
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Ninety percent of students at Hobgood Elementary are growing up in low-income households, and Principal Tammy Garrett says most of her teachers don't know what that's like.
TAMMY GARRETT: If you only grow up and you only know middle-class family, you may not understand, at times, maybe why they don't have their homework or why they're tired or those kinds of things.
FARMER: So when Garrett became principal four years ago, she decided to get teachers out of their classrooms and comfort zones for an afternoon and onto a pair of yellow school buses.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Hey, hey, hey, hey Hobgood.
FARMER: They're trying to get pumped up because they're doing something few enjoy - making cold calls.
JANE MARSH: Hello? It's Hobgood Elementary School.
FARMER: After a few more knocks, the door to this first-floor apartment cracks open.
MARSH: It's Mrs. Marsh. Hi.
FARMER: Many of these unannounced visits don't get beyond awkward pleasantries and handing out flyers about first-of-the-year festivities. Some yield brief-but-substantive conversations with parents like Jennifer Mathis, who might be strangers around school.
JENNIFER MATHIS: I don't have a car. I can't drive because my back got broken in two places. I can't be there with all of them at all one time.
FARMER: This is the kind of real talk Principal Garrett hopes for.
GARRETT: You know, if a kid doesn't have a place to sleep or they have to share the couch with their siblings at night and there are nine kids with one bedroom or two bedrooms, it's important for them to see that - not to be sympathetic. It's to empower the teachers to change the lives of the kids.
FARMER: It's serious business. But Danielle Hernandez, a special education teacher, says it's not the somber experience she'd feared. She's in an apartment complex that 50 students call home, many of them out riding bikes on their last day of summer break.
DANIELLE HERNANDEZ: I know that these children, they go through a lot in their lives. So - but they get to have so much fun.
FARMER: After a few minutes, teachers joined in on that fun, borrowing kids' bikes for a cross-parking-lot drag race. The kids, too, seem to genuinely enjoy the visit, even if it is a reminder that vacation's over.
SHELLEAH: I am so lucky.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, you're sweet.
SHELLEAH: It's great to see you.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You too.
FARMER: That's Shelleah Stephens, the daughter of Kenny Phillips, who lets his fourth-grader show off her budding social skills.
KENNY PHILLIPS: I'm just sitting back and just smiling, man. You know, it just brings you this joy. Like, it makes me want to cry, man.
FARMER: Phillips runs a small landscaping business and says long days keep him from being as involved in his daughter's education as he'd like to be. Seeing this interaction has him a little choked up.
PHILLIPS: It's just good to see her grow up, really, good to see her grow up and have people around her who care. That's the main thing. Sometimes parents aren't there, man. Sometimes we've got to work. Sometimes we're gone a lot of the time. It's good to see, you know, come out to the neighborhood like that, man. I know she's in good hands.
FARMER: Phillips says when he was growing up, no teacher stopped by his house. He says he'll return the favor by making sure Shelleah finishes all her homework this year. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
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