Home front

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

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Coleman A. Young Elementary School Principal Melissa Scott (left) and teacher Melanie Wallace (right) paid a visit to the home of Brenda Hutchins and her daughter Samantha Hutchins to discuss ways the school can help the family succeed. “We see how hard you’re working, mama!” Scott told her.

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.”


meet the candidates

These candidates are running for Detroit school board. Watch them introduce themselves.

Nine candidates are vying for two seats on Detroit's school board in November. Seven submitted photos.

One candidate tells of a childhood in a house without heat.

Another describes the two-hour commute he made to high school every day to build a future that would one day enable him to give back to Detroit.

A third says her work as a student activist inspired her to run for school board as a recent high school grad.

These candidates are among nine people vying for two seats up for grabs on Detroit’s seven-member school board on Nov. 6. That includes one incumbent and many graduates of the district.

Chalkbeat is partnering with Citizen Detroit to present a school board candidate forum Thursday, Sept. 20 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at IBEW Local 58, 1358 Abbott St., Detroit.

Participants will have the opportunity to meet each candidate and ask questions in a speed-dating format.

In anticipation of that event, Citizen Detroit invited each of the candidates to make a short video introducing themselves to voters. Seven candidates made videos.

Watch them here:


Michigan’s ‘band-aid’ for filling teaching jobs is expanding. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Teachers welcome students to the Southwest Detroit Community School on the first day of school. Seven of the charter's 31 educators last year entered the profession through a fast-track training program.

There aren’t enough qualified teachers to fill classrooms across Michigan — and especially in Detroit. That’s why state officials have opened the door to a controversial way of filling classrooms, loosening restrictions on so-called alternative certifications for educators.

In addition to Teachers of Tomorrow, a fast-track, for-profit teacher certification program that began placing teachers with virtually no classroom experience in schools this year, another for-profit company, #T.E.A.C.H., was recently approved to help expand the state’s teacher pipeline. They’ve joined long-running nonprofit programs like Teach for America, whose corps members typically get some in-classroom training and more hours of teaching classes.

If the expansion continues, it could change the face of schools across the state, in cities like Detroit most of all. In states like Texas — home to Teachers of Tomorrow — nearly half of new teachers take non-traditional routes to certification.

As policymakers gear up for a tug of war over teacher certification, Chalkbeat obtained last year’s teacher certification data for the entire state. The data, alongside interviews with experts in teacher training, painted a picture of where we are now — and where we might be headed.

It shows that teachers with alternative certification are concentrated in Detroit, largely at charter schools, and that they’re disproportionately at a handful of schools.

Scroll down for a list of schools in Michigan that employed at least one teacher with an interim certification last year.

But first — what is alternative certification, again?

In short, it’s an express lane into the teaching profession. Michigan teachers have traditionally attended teacher certification programs that require them to student teach in an actual classroom. By contrast, Michigan’s alternative certification route, which was created under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, allows anyone with a bachelor’s degree and a 3.0 GPA to start teaching after taking a few courses online and passing a test in the subject they hope to teach. Unlike traditional teacher colleges, these programs don’t require any in-classroom training.

After three years on the job, teachers with alternative certifications can become fully certified if their principal signs off.

This fast-track arrangement is not unusual — almost every U.S. state offers an accelerated route into teaching. But some are much more widely used than others.

The vast majority of Michigan educators still come from traditional, four- or five-year teacher training programs.

It’s not even close. When the state Legislature allowed for an alternate route to teacher certification nearly a decade ago, the policy was billed as an important tool in the struggle to alleviate a statewide teacher shortage. But the 248 educators with “interim certifications” who were employed in Michigan last year amount to little more than a blip in a statewide teacher corps of about 100,000.

A few controversial for-profit certification programs, which were approved to operate in Michigan for the first time last year, hope to change that. Teachers of Tomorrow, whose graduates have begun finding work in Michigan schools, certifies tens of thousands of teachers in 12 states.  And in a promotional video on its website, #T.E.A.C.H, promises to help would-be educators “start teaching almost immediately.” It allows teachers to complete their online training after they have started working in the classroom.

Teachers who go through an alternative certification program are heavily concentrated in Detroit.

Research shows that poor students of color in the U.S. are more likely to be taught by a teacher with an alternative certification. That holds true in Michigan. Two-thirds of the teachers certified through a non-traditional program in the state teach in the city of Detroit, where most students are poor and black or Latino.

This may be because Detroit schools are more willing to hire them. Less than one-twentieth of Michigan’s more than 3,000 schools don’t employ a single teacher with an interim certification. About one-third of Detroit’s schools do.

To be sure, the statewide teacher shortage is particularly punishing in Detroit, where poverty and large class sizes make working in the classroom more difficult. Alternative certification programs have focused their recruiting efforts in the city in an attempt to help fill the gap.

Across the country, cities “are where it’s hardest to get conventional teachers,” said Chester Finn, a senior fellow at the Thomas Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that has published studies of alternative certification. “Cities are also often where people from Teach for America and other idealistic programs are likely to want to teach.”

Critics say that lowering the barriers to entry into the teaching profession won’t address the deeper problems that plague Detroit schools. And they worry that this quick fix comes with unintended consequences.

“It’s really more like a band-aid, as opposed to addressing the larger issue,” said Christopher Crowley, a professor of teacher education at Wayne State University. “These are experiments, and they’re being tested on certain populations and not others.”

Teachers with alternative certifications can be effective.

It is very difficult to determine whether teachers who take this route perform any worse than their peers, partly because the accelerated programs vary widely in the amount of training and support they give new teachers. Armen Hratchian, director of Teach for America in Detroit, says its program allows teachers to be successful with fewer hours of in-classroom training — known as student teaching — that is common at traditional teacher colleges.

“To help meet the highest standard of teaching here in Michigan, TFA teachers spend over 400 pre-service hours training over the summer, continue to receive intensive coaching and development throughout their first two years, and are monitored and credentialed by the University of Michigan,” he said in an email.

But they are far more likely to leave the profession.

There’s little doubt that teachers who use alternative certification are more likely to leave the profession within a few years. Schools that fill vacancies with such teachers can find themselves in a “vicious cycle” of never-ending hiring, said Desiree Carver-Thomas, an education researcher at the non-partisan Learning Policy Institute, which last month published a list of best practices for combating teacher shortages that does not include alternative certification.

“Most states have been struggling to address teacher shortages for several years, often filling the vacuum with underprepared teachers,” the report reads.

Charter schools hire more teachers with alternative certifications than traditional schools.

Last year, 130 teachers with alternative certification were in charter schools compared with 105 at traditional schools in Michigan. A handful of charter schools have an especially high concentration of these teachers. At the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a tiny charter high school on the city’s northern border, nearly half of the 25 teachers at the school last year had not attended a traditional teaching program.

“As the teacher shortage continues to be an ongoing issue, I am always looking to find creative ways to find qualified candidates,” said Wendie Lewis, principal of the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, in an email. In her experience, teachers who arrive at the school via programs like Teach for America are actually more apt to stay than traditionally certified teachers, perhaps because they promise at the outset to teach for two years.

There are lots of other ways to fight the teacher shortage.

Experts recommend raising salaries, trying to coax retired teachers back onto the job, forgiving student loans for teachers, offering new teachers more mentorship — and the list goes on.

Local governments, philanthropies, and companies have also pitched in, sweetening the deal for teachers by offering discounts on houses and cars for educators in Detroit.

And school leaders in Detroit are already going to extraordinary lengths to fill their classrooms.

Most recently, the city’s main district announced a partnership with the University of Michigan and the Kresge Foundation to, among other things, build a new “cradle to career” school that will feature a beefed-up teacher training program. The idea, in part, is that better-trained, better-supported teachers are more likely to stay in the profession. The district has said it won’t rule out hiring teachers from alternative certification programs, but Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has made clear that he prefers teachers with more training.

“We have to get out of the days of taking any adult that has some education and some certification and placing them in a school, and go to a model where we actually teach teachers how to teach,” Vitti said as he announced the new school on Thursday.

Here’s a list of schools where teachers with alternative certifications were working in Michigan during the 2017-18 school year:

School # Teachers w/ Alt. Cert. Type of school City
Jalen Rose Leadership Academy 11 Charter Detroit
Central High School 9 Traditional Detroit
Voyageur College Prep 8 Charter Detroit
Denby High School 7 Traditional Detroit
Detroit Edison Public School Academy 7 Charter Detroit
MacDowell Preparatory Academy 7 Charter Detroit
Mumford High School 7 Traditional Detroit
Southwest Detroit Community School 7 Charter Detroit
Detroit Enterprise Academy 6 Charter Detroit
Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies (PSAD) 6 Charter Detroit
Voyageur Academy 6 Charter Detroit
Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies – Elementary 5 Charter Detroit
Burns Elementary-Middle School 4 Traditional Detroit
Law Elementary School 4 Traditional Detroit
Southeastern High School 4 Traditional Detroit
Cass Technical High School 3 Traditional Detroit
Cesar Chavez High School 3 Charter Detroit
Clippert Academy 3 Traditional Detroit
Detroit Innovation Academy 3 Charter Detroit
Detroit Leadership Academy Elementary 3 Charter Detroit
Detroit Leadership Academy Middle/High 3 Charter Detroit
Ford High School 3 Traditional Detroit
Pansophia Academy 3 Charter Coldwater
Washington-Parks Academy 3 Charter Redford
Beecher High School 2 Traditional Mount Morris
Benjamin Carson School for Science and Medicine 2 Traditional Detroit
Detroit City West Side Academy for Leadership Development 2 Traditional Detroit
Detroit Prep 2 Charter Detroit
Frontier International Academy 2 Charter Detroit
Linden Charter Academy 2 Charter Flint
New Paradigm Loving Academy 2 Charter Detroit
Nolan Elementary-Middle School 2 Traditional Detroit
Old Redford Academy – High 2 Charter Detroit
St. Catherine of Siena Academy 2 Private Wixom
Trix Academy 2 Charter Detroit
University Preparatory Academy (PSAD) – High School 2 Charter Detroit
University Preparatory Science and Math (PSAD) Middle School 2 Charter Detroit
Webberville High School 2 Traditional Webberville
Western International High School 2 Traditional Detroit
Academy for Business and Technology Elementary 1 Charter Dearborn
ACTech High School 1 Traditional Ypsilanti
Advanced Technology Academy 1 Charter Dearborn
All Saints Catholic School 1 Private Canton
Alternative Educational Academy of Iosco County 1 Charter East Tawas
Ann L. Dolsen Elementary School 1 Traditional New Hudson
Arno Elementary School 1 Traditional Allen Park
Avondale High School 1 Traditional Auburn Hills
Avondale Middle School 1 Traditional Rochester Hills
Bendle Middle School 1 Traditional Burton
Botsford Elementary School 1 Traditional Livonia
Brenda Scott Academy for Theatre Arts 1 Traditional Detroit
Capstone Academy Charter School (SDA) – South Campus 1 Charter Detroit
Cesar Chavez Middle School 1 Charter Detroit
Chandler Park Academy – Middle School 1 Charter Harper Woods
Chelsea High School 1 Traditional Chelsea
Communication and Media Arts HS 1 Traditional Detroit
Conner Creek Academy East – Michigan Collegiate 1 Charter Warren
Crescent Academy Elementary 1 Charter Southfield
Crestwood High School 1 Traditional Dearborn Heights
Croswell-Lexington High School 1 Traditional Croswell
Dansville High School 1 Traditional Dansville
Dearborn High School 1 Traditional Dearborn
Detroit Achievement Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Collegiate High School 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Edison Public School Academy – High School 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Merit Charter Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit School of Arts 1 Traditional Detroit
Dickinson East Elementary School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
East Arbor Charter Academy 1 Charter Ypsilanti
Eastpointe High School 1 Traditional Eastpointe
Ecorse Community High School 1 Traditional Ecorse
Escuela Avancemos 1 Charter Detroit
Fitzgerald Senior High School 1 Traditional Warren
George Washington Carver Elementary School 1 Charter Highland Park
Grand Ledge High School 1 Traditional Grand Ledge
Hamtramck High School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
Harrison High School 1 Traditional Farmington Hills
Henry Ford Academy 1 Charter Dearborn
Holy Family Regional School 1 Private Rochester
Hope of Detroit Academy – Elementary 1 Charter Detroit
Horizon High School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
Inkster Preparatory Academy 1 Charter Inkster
International Academy of Flint (K-12) 1 Charter Flint
Jackson Christian School 1 Private Jackson
Jackson ISD Local Based Special Education Programs 1 ISD School Jackson
Kensington Woods Schools 1 Charter Lakeland
Kosciuszko School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
Legacy Charter Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Lindemann Elementary School 1 Traditional Allen Park
Litchfield High School 1 Traditional Litchfield
Lowrey Middle School 1 Traditional Dearborn
Madison High School 1 Traditional Madison Heights
Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary-Middle School 1 Traditional Detroit
Maybury Elementary School 1 Traditional Detroit
Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody 1 Traditional Detroit
Michigan Connections Academy 1 Charter Okemos
Multicultural Academy 1 Charter Ann Arbor
Munger Elementary-Middle School 1 Traditional Detroit
Murphy Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Noble Elementary-Middle School 1 Traditional Detroit
Northeast Elementary School 1 Traditional Jackson
Northridge Academy 1 Charter Flint
Novi High School 1 Traditional Novi
Novi Woods Elementary School 1 Traditional Novi
Osborn Academy of Mathematics 1 Traditional Detroit
Owosso High School 1 Traditional Owosso
Oxford Crossroads Day School 1 Traditional Oxford
Pershing High School 1 Traditional Detroit
Reach Charter Academy 1 Charter Roseville
Redford Service Learning Academy Campus 1 Charter Redford
Redford Union High School 1 Traditional Redford
Regent Park Scholars Charter Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Renaissance High School 1 Traditional Detroit
Royal Oak High School 1 Traditional Royal Oak
Salina Intermediate 4 – 8 1 Traditional Dearborn
Saline High School 1 Traditional Saline
South Lake High School 1 Traditional Saint Clair Shores
South Pointe Scholars Charter Academy 1 Charter Ypsilanti
Thornton Creek Elementary School 1 Traditional Novi
University Preparatory Academy (PSAD) – Elementary 1 Charter Detroit
University Preparatory Science and Math (PSAD) High School 1 Charter Detroit
University Yes Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Washtenaw International High School 1 ISD School Ypsilanti
Woodworth Middle School 1 Traditional Dearborn
Ypsilanti STEMM Middle College 1 Traditional Ypsilanti

Source: Michigan Department of Education