‘It opened everything up.’ How school home visits are changing relationships in Detroit

A teacher-principal team pulls up to a house on Detroit’s west side. They kill the engine, grab their bags and papers and knock, but no one comes to the door. The principal shrugs.  

“You remember this mom works nights?” she asks the teacher. “She’s a 9/11 operator. I bet she had to leave for work.”

They get back in the car and put in the address for the next stop — another student’s house. Instead of spending time enjoying one of the first warm spring evenings of the year, teacher Melanie Wallace and Principal Melissa Scott from Coleman A. Young Elementary School spend hours after the school day ends driving from home to home to visit their students’ families.

“We’ve done as many as 13 a day,” said Wallace, who sometimes works 12-hour days teaching, then visiting homes — and that’s in between driving two families’ students to and from school every day, since the bus doesn’t go far enough to pick them up.

Home visits by teachers and principals are popular across the country. There is a national organization that will train teachers and principals on how to conduct visits, extensive research from universities indicating positive results from the visits, and thousands of schools putting the model to use.

But in Detroit, the stakes are higher.

Detroit school leaders are trying to change the culture of schools that, for years, have been among the lowest performing in the nation, but experts say teachers can’t do that alone. They need the help and support of parents.

Adding even more urgency, Detroit schools are constantly in danger of losing money as parents choose to exercise their options to attend dozens of district, charter, or suburban schools inside and outside their neighborhoods. Since most parents say they choose schools based on the recommendations of other parents, those who are involved in their children’s schools are more likely to become ambassadors, singing a school’s praises on the neighborhood playground and drumming up other support.

That’s why Detroit district leaders this year announced a major expansion of school home visits, taking something that schools such as Coleman A. Young had been doing occasionally and on their own, and formalizing the process with help from a $3 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Educators now get a $30 stipend per child for each home they visit. And parents are paid the same stipend. School staff members are also collecting data on the benefits of the program as they look to expand in the future.

“We’ve been doing the visits the whole time,” Scott said. “We would stop by homes of our students’ whose families we had never met, and try to get to know them.”

The difference now, Scott said, is that school staff are visiting every home that will let them in, working to strengthen connections even with families they know well.

Scott said going to homes is a necessity to build relationships with parents at her school, and that the community has unique needs she wouldn’t know about otherwise. Sometimes, families don’t have hot water or children share a couch to sleep. She said she needs to know the issues in order to offer solutions and resources.

It gives teachers a better understanding of the struggles students have at home, Wallace said.

“I had students — kids who don’t have behavior issues — who would stand next to their desks, and I would have to ask them to sit down,” Wallace said. “I didn’t understand why it was happening, but then I went on home visits and realized it was because they don’t have furniture, so they’re not used to sitting.”

In order to meet the needs of the families they have visited, Scott said the school provides access to the staff kitchen, a shower, and a washer and dryer. Teachers pay out of pocket to keep laundry detergent and bath products stocked. 

Scott said families come in every weekend to cook meals and do laundry for free. If Scott notices a child hasn’t gotten a bath recently, she’ll pull the student out for a shower.

“We’re a full-service, salon, academic institution,” Scott said.

Research says home visits can particularly help “overcome barriers related to low-income parents’ work constraints and transportation problems” when trying to strengthen the relationship between parents and the school.

That research holds true for 25-year-old Brenda Hutchins. She said the visits have made her feel like school leaders are part of her family.

When Scott and Wallace sit down in her dining room, they easily pick up an intimate conversation about her health complications from an ectopic pregnancy and her relationship with her sister. They do a check in on grades for her two daughters and hand over paperwork regarding extra help needed for one of the girls.

“We see how hard you’re working, mama!” Scott told her. “And your girls see it, too. You’re leading by example.”

At another house, four kids hang off the porch, excited to see their teacher and principal outside the school hallways. They usher the pair inside as their grandmother and caregiver, Claudia Wilson, hugs Scott.

“How’s everything going?” Scott asked before peppering Wilson with a list of prepared questions: “Do you attend school activities? Is your child meeting attendance expectations? Is there anything we can do to help you?”

After sorting out the list and sharing information about upcoming computer classes for parents, Scott chitchats about Wilson’s purse and one of her granddaughter’s report card grades.

“You tell her, ‘next time, you do better,’” Scott said. “They are gonna be somebody.”

“Oh I know,” Wilson said. “These kids have been a blessing and you have been a blessing to them.”

Detroit district schools aren’t the only ones doing the visits. Charter schools in the area are conducting home visits, but formalizing the process and expanding it to all schools isn’t part of the plan, at least, for schools authorized by the state’s second-largest authorizer, Grand Valley State University, in part because Kellogg didn’t offer the home visit funding to charters.

The charter schools “aren’t doing it at scale,” said Maria Montoya, manager of school and community partnerships at the authorizer office at Grand Valley State University. “They’re doing it where it’s necessary and certain that there is value in that type of outreach.”

For the district, the benefits are huge, said Destinee Ray-Williams, a district family engagement officer. Official data on the pilot will be available at the end of the school year, after participating schools have had a chance to make two visits to the 40 or 50 homes involved in the trial, and answers from the questionnaires have compiled, Ray-Williams said. But school staff are already seeing benefits.

“I’ve heard from teachers that behavior has improved with students and that relationships with parents are a lot easier,” she said.

Principal Scott said enrollment at the school has gone way up after the 150 visits they’ve done. The school has been adding an average of a student per week, she said. Scott chalks the increase up to prospective parents either hearing about or seeing the intense level of support the school provides, including the home visits.

“It changed the way I interacted with them,” district parent Brenda Hutchins said, of her relationship with the principal and teachers. “I know I can come in and talk to them now. It opened everything up.”