Around a decade ago, Judy Argumedo was working as a school district administrator on reducing truancy and went to the homes of Palo Alto students who weren't attending school in an effort to get them back on campus.
One day, the teenager Argumedo was visiting asked her a question that she has never forgotten: Why was Argumedo only showing up now, when she'd never come to visit before?
"Those experiences stay with you," Argumedo said. "I didn't have an answer for her, and it hurt me."
Ever since, Argumedo said she's believed that school leaders need to visit students when things are positive, particularly at earlier ages. Now, she's in a position to make that happen.
Argumedo is in her first year as the principal of Barron Park Elementary School and has set herself the goal of visiting every student's home to meet with their families. Rather than have parents and students come to her, she's going straight to them.
"Home visits for me are essential because usually when you hear from the school officials, it's not always pleasant," Argumedo said.
The visits are part of an effort to forge partnerships with parents and students and to create community at the elementary school.
During her first semester, she managed to visit roughly 60 students. She's also checked back with some families multiple times, for a total of nearly 80 visits. Argumedo's progress has been slowed by the current surge in COVID-19 cases, which led her to curtail visits in January. She intends to restart next month and still hopes to get through the whole student population this year. If she doesn't manage that, her plan is to continue in the fall. After that, she plans to conduct home visits with any new students each year.
The initiative is possible in part because of Barron Park's small size, with a population of roughly 200 students. Christina Fusimalohi and her fifth-grade daughter, Marissa, are among those whom Argumedo has visited.
"It was fun," Marissa said. "It was cool because I got to learn a little bit about her."
Her mom similarly felt that the visit was a chance to get to know Argumedo better. They talked about Argumedo's family and the years she spent living in Los Angeles, as well as lighthearted topics, like decorating holiday cookies.
Before the pandemic, Fusimalohi said she was often on campus three days a week but only had brief interactions with Argumedo before the home visit.
"Talking to her at the school, I don't get on a personal level like I did today," Fusimalohi said.
The home visits at Barron Park are meant to make connections with families proactively, to establish trust.
"If a student is having an issue or a challenge and I've already made the connection with the families, then the parents and I can work through it together," Argumedo said.
The home visits are also a chance for Argumedo to hear from all families.
When Neera Narang got an unexpected phone call from the school asking to schedule a home visit with the principal, she said she was taken aback at first but interested. Both Narang and her husband went through public schools themselves and are big believers in the system.
"I have never heard of this level of attention (being paid) at an individual family level in the absence, quite honestly, of kids who are struggling," Narang said.
During the home visit, Narang's two children — a kindergartener and second grader — were a bit shy and played in the background, but Argumedo's presence made a difference. When the kids were back on campus, they started greeting the principal, saying "hi" whenever they saw her, Narang said.
"She's a friendly face. She's someone who sat in their backyard and has met their parents," Narang said. "I think it just really changes the whole dynamic."
The day after each visit, Argumedo gives the child a card, thanking them for letting her come to their home.
"I'm hoping that the kids see that I really care about them," Argumedo said. "I'm going to your home and then the next day I'm meeting with you because I truly do care."
Some parents — roughly 10 — have declined to take part in the home visits, and Argumedo said she respects their choice. In an effort to make things easier for working parents, Argumedo also plans to start offering Zoom visits as an option.
Among those who have said "yes," Argumedo said that parents will sometimes bring up things during home visits that they may be less comfortable saying in a traditional on-campus meeting. Families have talked about not having enough food for their children, difficulty finding after-school care and mental health struggles their students are facing.
When Argumedo hears about these kinds of challenges, she'll connect with support staff on campus, as well as sometimes the PTA and other groups, to find ways to offer help.
"There are so many factors that affect a child's education, and the school can't fix everything, but we can be supportive and there are some things that we can do," Argumedo said.
Barron Park has a greater share of low income students than the district overall, as well as kids who are learning English. At Barron Park, 27.6% of students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged and 24.6% are English learners. That's compared to 11% and 8.6%, respectively, in Palo Alto Unified overall, according to state data.
As principal, Argumedo made Barron Park's slogan "Diversity is our strength."
"We have so many languages and incomes and cultures and races and ethnicities (on campus)," Argumedo said. "It just adds to our students' experience in such a rich way. I think that it is a real strength."
Argumedo herself comes from a low-income background and was the first in her family to graduate from college. She credits education with changing her life. Teachers believed in her from a young age, which Argumedo said gave her drive and allowed her to see college as a real possibility.
During home visits, Argumedo will bring up college with older students whose parents didn't attend themselves. Starting those conversations early is important, Argumedo said.
She also speaks Spanish, which allows her to converse with Spanish-speaking families in their native language.
For Lourdez Ruiz, who has a fifth grader at Barron Park, being able to talk to the principal in Spanish was important, allowing her to speak more comfortably. During her home visit, Ruiz talked about her daughter's progress at Barron Park, got to know Argumedo better and introduced the principal to her husband.
"It's easier for us to tell them what we want or what our concerns are in our own language," Ruiz said. "I was so happy when I heard that she speaks Spanish."
Argumedo has longstanding ties to the Barron Park community. Her husband, now an assistant principal at Gunn High School, taught third grade at Barron Park, and the couple's two daughters went through the school themselves.
"I really valued how much I became part of the community," Argumedo said.
Before coming to Barron Park as principal this past fall, Argumedo worked for years at the district office. As the director of academic support programs, the areas she oversaw included the district's English language learner program, voluntary transfer program and summer school.
Although she said she is proud of what she accomplished at the district level, Argumedo decided she wanted to be back on a school campus, interacting with children and families every day.
"I felt like I really needed to get back to where my roots were, and it's with elementary kids," said Argumedo, who started her career as a kindergarten and first grade teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. "It's making that one-on-one difference."
She asked Palo Alto Unified to consider her for a principal position, and Superintendent Don Austin suggested Barron Park, where the prior principal was retiring.
"She just about jumped out of the chair," Austin said. "That is the school that she said was No. 1 on her list. It fit who she is as a person. They had connections at the school."
In Argumedo's first few months on the job, Austin said he has been impressed by how she has immediately immersed herself in the community and implemented ambitious goals, like the home visit program.
For her part, Argumedo said she's been struck by how the community has embraced her.
"Barron Park as a whole, the community here is very strong," she said. "They've been very welcoming to me, and I just feel like I'm home."