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.”


The mayor's role

Duggan’s schools commission has already brought charter and district leaders to the table. Here’s what else it can do (and what it can’t)

Mayor Mike Duggan plants to appoint Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to a commission that will focus on issues facing students in district and charter schools.

For the first time in years, Detroit’s mayor will have a small hand in shaping education in the city.

A new commission, whose nine members will be appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan, will include representatives of the main Detroit school district and charter schools, whose competition for teachers and students has made them reluctant to come to the same table.

The group will focus on services that have fallen between the cracks in a city where decisions about transportation and after-school programming are made by dozens of unaffiliated charter schools in addition to the main district.

The commission will run a new bus route that will transport students to both district and charter schools on Detroit’s northwest side — a controversial proposal that got official approval from the Detroit school board this week.

It will lead an effort to grade city schools, taking over for the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit, which dissolved last year. The rating system has the potential to dramatically impact the fortunes of schools whose survival depends on their enrollment figures.

And it will serve as a conduit for philanthropic dollars that could lead to other cooperative programs between district and charter schools typically wary of working together.

The mayor’s involvement is politically delicate in a city where years of state intervention in local schools have left voters wary of outsiders overruling the elected school board.

The school board’s decision to support the effort was controversial, with critics at a public meeting this week arguing that the board was giving up too much authority to the mayor.

But Vitti argued successfully that the district is carefully limiting its involvement in the effort with an eye toward preserving local control. He pointed to guidelines for the commission that insist, in bold print, that it “will not encroach” on work being done by existing school operators in Detroit.

Following the board’s approval, Vitti will be among the mayor’s appointments to the commission, which will also include parents and educators from both district and charter schools, a teachers union representative, and community leaders (see below for a full list).

The commission plans to meet eight times a year, and will voluntarily submit to state open records laws, according to its guidelines. It will not begin meeting until Duggan has formally appointed directors to the commission. It’s not clear when that will be.

But as plans for the commission emerge, equally important is what’s missing.

It won’t have the power to hold district and charter schools to performance standards. It won’t be able to determine which schools in the city open and close, and — crucially for a city where many neighborhoods lack access to a quality school — it won’t decide where new schools are located.

Earlier proposals, including one for a powerful central body called the Detroit Education Commission, would have done all of those things, placing substantial school oversight responsibilities in the hands of Detroit’s mayor for the first time since mayoral control of schools ended in 2005. Following a fierce lobbying effort, state lawmakers rejected the plan in 2016.

That was a defeat for advocates who have long pushed for an organization that can bring cohesion to the city’s schools. They argue that the proliferation of school options in Detroit and elsewhere is creating problems for families in low-income, urban districts. Detroit has plenty of schools, but large swaths of the city lack a quality option, and some families must make extreme sacrifices to navigate the system.

Other cities with high concentrations of charter schools have created centralized school agencies. In New Orleans and Washington, parents can go to a single agency to learn about individual schools and enroll their children.

The intent of the Detroit commission is similar, but its scope has been constrained by fierce opposition from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

On one side, those criticisms have not dissipated. Vitti sought to reassure board members on Tuesday that the commission won’t undermine local control.

“A rating system is inevitable, and this allows us to create a rating system with Detroit stakeholders, not led by a process in Lansing,” he said.

That argument was enough to win over most the board, but not everyone was convinced. Voters “elected a board that would work with them,” said LaMar Lemmons, one of the “nos” in a 5-to-2 vote. “I am vehemently opposed to giving away our authority.”

Lemmons also opposed the Detroit Education Commission when it went before the state legislature in 2016. “The mayor should not have anything — absolutely anything — to do with the schools,” he said Tuesday.

He was joined in that view in 2016 by Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. Secretary of Education, whose school choice advocacy groups donated $1.45 million to state legislators in a matter of weeks to forestall what they viewed as a new layer of charter school oversight.

This time, however, charter advocates didn’t show up to oppose the pared down commission.

“We all need to work together on how schools are evaluated,” Dan Quisenberry, president of a charter organization, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said. “Transportation? Yes, please.”

But he cautioned against the “other extreme,” in which official oversight powers would be handed to the mayor’s office.

Expected appointees to the Community Education Commission include Vitti, district teacher Marsha Lewis, charter school operator Ralph Bland; charter school teacher Rachel Ignagni; at least one parent of a child attending school in the city of Detroit; and Nate Walker of the American Federation of Teachers.

The remaining slots are expected to go to activists and non-profit leaders, including Monique Marks of Franklin-Wright Settlements; Tonya Allen of the Skillman Foundation; Teferi Brent of Detroit 300/Goodwill Industries; and Sherita Smith of Grandmont-Rosedale Community Development. All will be unpaid.

pink slips

One Detroit principal keeps his job as others get the ax. Next year’s challenge? Test scores.

PHOTO: Brenda Scott Academy
Students at Brenda Scott Academy will have the same principal, Eric Redwine, next year.

Educators and staff from a Detroit middle school took the microphone on Tuesday evening to save their principal’s job. Addressing the school board, they listed off Eric Redwine’s virtues, arguing that recent problems at the school can be attributed to its transition from state to district management.

And the board listened. Redwine, principal of Brenda Scott Academy, kept his job in a narrow 4-to-3 vote. He was the only one to survive among more than a dozen other administrators — and three other principals — who either lost their jobs or were reassigned to new ones.

The vote came amid a quiet year for “non-renewals,” shorthand for losing one’s job. In previous years, every administrator in the district was forced to re-apply for their job every year, a tactic designed to give state-appointed emergency managers flexibility in the face of an unstable financial situation. This year, by contrast, only 16 administrators — including four principals — were notified by the superintendent’s office that their contracts would not be renewed, as Superintendent Nikolai Vitti seeks to bring stability to a district still recovering from repeated changes in management.

The principals were singled out for their school management, Vitti has said — not because of how students performed on tests. Test scores will be a major factor in principal contract renewals next spring for the first time under Vitti, part of the superintendent’s effort to meet his promise of boosting test scores.

Seven of the 16 administrators who received “non-renewals” asked the board to reconsider the superintendent’s decision. But in a vote on Tuesday evening, only Redwine survived. He’ll remain as principal of Brenda Scott Academy, according to board member LaMar Lemmons.

The other officials were not named, but Chalkbeat confirmed independently that the district did not renew its contracts with principals Sean Fisher, of Fisher Magnet Upper Academy, and Allan Cosma, of Ludington Magnet Middle School. Vitti previously attempted to remove Cosma, then agreed to offer him a job as assistant principal at Ludington.

At an earlier meeting, Cosma’s employees gathered to vouch for his work. On Tuesday, it was Redwine who received vocal support.

Redwine himself argued publicly that the problems identified at his school by administrators — teacher vacancies and school culture — could be attributed to the school’s transition from a state-run recovery district back to the main district. The recovery district, called the Education Achievement Authority, was created in 2012 to try to turn around 15 of the most struggling schools in the district but the effort was politically unpopular and had limited success. Most of the schools were returned to the main district last summer when the recovery district was dissolved. The only exceptions were schools that had been closed or converted to charter schools.

“I’ve never been told your job is in jeopardy, never been presented a corrective action plan,” Redwine said. “I ask that you reconsider your decision.”

Of the 12 schools that returned to the district last summer, most still have the principals who were in place during the transition last summer. A few got new principals this year after their predecessors left and at least one other former recovery district principal was moved earlier in the year.

Many school leaders reported that the transition was very difficult. It occurred at a time when Vitti was new and still putting his team into place in the central office, making it challenging for principals of the schools to get information they needed about the new district.

When Marcia Horge worked for Redwine, she appreciated his openness to classroom experimentation and his schoolwide Sunday night email, which laid out a game plan for the week ahead.

Then the recovery district folded, Brenda Scott Academy rejoined the main district, and Horge found herself facing a steep pay cut. Rather than accept credit for only two of her 17 years of teaching experience, she left for the River Rouge district. But now, with the Detroit district planning to fully honor teacher experience starting this fall, Horge is contemplating a return to work for Redwine.

“He’s open to our ideas,” she said. “You can go to him. And when there’s a need, he steps in and makes sure we’re communicating.”