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.”

teacher prep

Tennessee’s mediocre teacher training programs prompt ‘interventions’ with university presidents

PHOTO: Austin Peay
Austin Peay State University in Clarksville is among four Tennessee schools that have undergone "interventions" with state officials over the quality of their teacher training programs.

Armed with sobering data about the performance of teacher training programs in Tennessee, state officials are holding meetings with top brass at universities where they say programs have grown out of touch with the needs of K-12 classrooms.

About 40 programs in Tennessee feed the state’s teacher pipeline with about 4,000 new teachers annually. The largest are based at colleges and universities.

But those same traditional programs generally aren’t attracting enough high-quality candidates or producing enough effective or diverse teachers. Not a single public university in Tennessee scored in the top fifth of teacher training programs under a state report card issued in 2016. And the outlook isn’t expected to improve much under the 2017 report card being released early next month, officials say.

“This data is sobering. It tells us that higher education must do better,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “I worry our higher education faculty in colleges of education get disconnected from what a K-12 classroom looks like.”

Krause outlined the challenges to state lawmakers during a presentation on Tuesday with Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

Their first “intervention meetings” were with the presidents and education deans at four universities: Austin Peay, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Tennessee-Martin, and Tennessee Tech. Similar meetings are scheduled this spring with leadership of private colleges and universities across the state.

Krause described the first meetings as “very productive” — and illuminating. “In many cases, the presidents just didn’t know” about their programs’ shortcomings, he said.

Teacher quality is considered a driving factor in students’ success, making the quality of teacher preparation programs a front-burner issue in Tennessee.  A 2016 report said only a handful of the state’s programs are consistently preparing teachers to improve student achievement based on Tennessee’s TVAAS measure. The State Board’s new grading system also highlighted weaknesses based on racial diversity, candidates’ ACT scores, and whether they are producing teachers for high-need areas such as special education.

Reading instruction is another big challenge. In a state where only a third of students are considered proficient in reading, new teachers are arriving in classrooms ill-prepared to instruct students on Tennessee’s new reading standards. The state is working with higher education institutions so their faculty can take the same professional development on literacy that working teachers are taking.

But for the most part, the State Board has limited levers for improving the quality of teacher prep. The biggest hammer comes every seven years when each program undergoes a comprehensive review for licensure. (In 2014, the state raised its standards and revised its measures for effectiveness to include data such as placement, retention and employer satisfaction.)

Chancellor Keith Carver

Tennessee-Martin Chancellor Keith Carver said his school took its last state report card to heart. As a result of its overall score of 2 out of a possible 4, the university hired an assessment coordinator to help guide decisions based on data. “It’s a really good baseline for improving,” he said of the report card. “We’ve got some work to do in our diversity profile.”

Tennessee’s teacher candidates are overwhelmingly white and female. Of those who completed Tennessee’s programs in 2016, only 14 percent identified themselves as non-white, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population.

“Colleges of education will not stumble into diversity. There has to be a very intentional effort,” Krause said.

View the full presentation from Tuesday’s legislative hearing below.

Gold standard teachers

Tennessee adds nationally certified teachers but continues to trail in the South

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat

Twenty Tennessee educators have earned a national certification that’s considered the profession’s highest mark of achievement, although the state continues to lag in the South in growing that community.

The state Department of Education on Tuesday released the list of new educators designated as National Board Certified Teachers.

Their addition brings Tennessee’s number of NBCT educators to more than 700, with another 63 pursuing certification. By comparison, Kentucky has 3,600, Virginia 3,400, and Georgia 2,600.

“We know that teachers are the biggest factor in the success of our students, and it is an honor to celebrate educators who are helping their students grow, while serving as an example of what it means to be a lifelong learner,” Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Nationally, 5,470 teachers earned the designation in 2016-17, raising the total to more than 118,000 through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The certification takes from one to three years to complete and includes a performance-based peer-review process. Successful candidates must demonstrate a proven impact on student learning and achievement.

In Tennessee, at least 36 school districts offer at least one type of incentive for achieving the certification. The most common is a salary bonus.

North Carolina continues to lead the nation in certification, with 616 more teachers gaining the endorsement last month from the Arlington, Va.-based organization.

Earning their certification in Tennessee were:

  • John Bourn, Franklin Special School District
  • Christy Brawner, Shelby County Schools
  • James Campbell, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Kimberly Coyle, Sumner County Schools
  • Suzanne Edwards, Williamson County Schools
  • Anastasia Fredericksen, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Theresa Fuller, Kingsport City Schools
  • Amber Hartzler, Clarksville-Montgomery County School System
  • Jennifer Helm, Williamson County Schools
  • Deborah Higdon, Franklin Special School District
  • Karen Hummer, Franklin Special School District
  • Heather Meston, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Melissa Miller, Franklin Special School District
  • Kelsey Peace, Sumner County Schools
  • Lindsey Pellegrin, Franklin Special School District
  • Andrea Reeder, Williamson County Schools
  • Jordan Sims, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Susanna Singleton, Williamson County Schools
  • Melissa Stugart, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Drew Wilkerson, Franklin Special School District

To learn more, visit the website of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.