Knock knock

Home visits help Memphis teachers know their students before the first bell rings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Neighborhoods in South Memphis surround Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School, which opens in August through Shelby County Schools.

The first day of school is still a week away for Aleesia Isom, but the first-year teacher already has met most of her students — in their homes.

Early home visits are part of the foundation for teacher training at Memphis Delta Preparatory, a 300-student, K-4 charter school that will open this month under a contract with Shelby County Schools. One of the charter’s 18 teachers will have visited the homes of each student by the time school starts on Aug. 8.

The goal is to open up early channels of communication among parents, students and teachers, but home visits also serve as a kind of professional development, according to Michael McKenna, the school’s founder.

“Doing home visits for each kid isn’t a common practice for a school starting with 300 kids,” McKenna said. “But we believe it’s a powerful thing for our teachers to sit at the kitchen table and get to ask their parents and students what challenges they are nervous for and what they are excited about. It gets our teachers ready for those challenges before school even starts.”

Isom is a good example. Starting out, she wasn’t familiar with South Memphis, the community where she’ll be teaching this year. But now she has a comfort level with the children who will be in her class and the neighborhoods they come from.

Even so, home visits are challenging. “Going into a stranger’s home is intimidating,” Isom acknowledged. “But the mom welcomed me in so warmly, and I got to hear the background of her kids and promised them I would do my best to provide a quality education.”

Memphis Delta Prep teachers practice classroom management skills with each other during a training exercise.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Memphis Delta Prep teachers practice classroom management skills during a training exercise.

Home visits are just part of the unique teacher training approach under the leadership of McKenna, who worked at nearby Soulsville Charter School before leaving Memphis for a few years to work at a KIPP school in Philadelphia. There, he learned about Jounce Partners, a model that focuses on “teacher coaches” who use high-repetition practices. While training, a teacher will repeat the same specific skill, such as always following up a question with another question, at least 20 times a day, multiple times a week. This creates a muscle memory, McKenna said.

“You never see a basketball player do one or two jump shots and call it good until game time,” McKenna said. “Teaching is a performance sport, and you’ve got to practice.”

In her first year of teaching as part of Memphis Teacher Residency, Isom said the repetition drill has given her more confidence in skills like classroom management. For example, she’s practiced countless times how to scan the room and give an observable direction, such as “all eyes on me.”

Still, it’s the school visits that have had the biggest impact on her.

“This is our first year, so it’s not like we have test scores or data to point to and say that we’re going to give your child a great education,” Isom said. “I’ve promised every family that I’ve visited with that we’ll make their child college-ready. …That intense motivation, most professional development doesn’t give you.”

Detroit week in review

Week in review: The state’s year-round scramble to fill teaching jobs

Miss Michigan Heather Heather Kendrick spent the day with students at the Charles H. Wright Academy of Arts and Science in Detroit

While much of the media attention has been focused this year on the severe teacher shortage in the main Detroit district, our story this week looks at how district and charter schools throughout the region are now scrambling year-round to fill vacant teaching jobs — an instability driven by liberal school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers.

The teacher shortage has also made it difficult for schools to find substitutes as many are filling in on long-term assignments while schools try to fill vacancies. Two bills proposed in a state senate committee would make it easier for schools to hire retirees and reduce the requirements for certifying subs.  

Also, don’t forget to reserve your seat for Wednesday’s State of the Schools address. The event will be one of the first times in recent years when the leader of the city’s main district — Nikolai Vitti — will appear on the same stage as the leaders of the city’s two largest charter school authorizers. For those who can’t make it, we will carry it live on Chalkbeat Detroit.

Have a good week!

– Julie Topping, Editor, Chalkbeat Detroit

STATE OF THE SCHOOLS: The State of the Schools address will pair Vitti with the leaders of the schools he’s publicly vowed to put out of business, even as schools advocates say city kids could benefit if the leaders of the city’s fractured school system worked together to solve common problems.

LOOKING FOR TEACHERS: The city’s teacher shortage mirrors similar challenges across the country but the problem in Detroit is exacerbated by liberal school choice policies that have forced schools to compete with each other for students and teachers.

Hiring efforts continue at Detroit’s main school district, which is planning another job fair. Head Start centers are also looking for teachers. Three new teachers talk about the challenges, rewards and obstacles of the classroom.

WHOSE MONEY IS IT? The state Senate sent a bill to the House that would allow charters to receive a portion of property tax hikes approved by voters. Those funds have historically gone only to traditional district schools.

UNITED THEY STAND: Teachers in this southwest Detroit charter school voted to join a union, but nationally, union membership for teachers has been falling for two decades.

COLLEGE AND CAREERS: A national foundation based in Michigan granted $450,000 to a major Detroit business coalition to help more students finish college.

High school seniors across the state will be encouraged to apply to at least one college this month. The main Detroit district meanwhile showed off a technical center that prepares youngsters and adults for careers in construction, plumbing and carpentry and other fields.  

STEPS TO IMPROVEMENT: A prominent news publisher explains why he told lawmakers he believes eliminating the state board of education is the right thing to do. An advocate urged Michigan to look to other states for K-12 solutions. And one local newspaper says the governor is on the right track to improving education in Michigan.

This think tank believes businesses should be more engaged in education debates.

LISTEN TO US: The newly elected president of a state teachers union says teachers just want to be heard when policy is being made. She wrote in a Detroit newspaper that it takes passion and determination to succeed in today’s classrooms.

A PIONEER: Funeral services for a trailblazing African American educator have been scheduled for Saturday.

Also, the mother-in-law of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, died in her west Michigan home.

FARM-TO-SCHOOL:  A state program that provides extra money to school districts for locally grown produce has expanded to include more schools.

BETTER THAN AN APPLE: Nominate your favorite educator for Michigan Teacher of the Year before the 11:59 deadline tonight.

An Ann Arbor schools leader has been named the 2018 Michigan Superintendent of the Year by a state group of school administrators.

MYSTERY SMELL: The odor from a failed light bulb forced a Detroit high school to dismiss students early this week.

EXTRA CREDIT: Miss Michigan encouraged students at one Detroit school to consider the arts as they follow their dreams. The city schools foundation honored two philanthropic leaders as champions for education.

And high school students were inspired by a former college football player. 

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.


Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.