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Dearborn teacher visits blur line between school and home

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Dearborn — There is a knock at the door and inside the house several young faces are smiling through the glass, jostling to get a better view of their afternoon visitors.

Two familiar faces — Lisa Younce and Michelle Rawson, teachers from Dearborn's public schools — are welcomed inside the Dearborn home where first-grader Noah Hazimeh lives with his parents and three siblings.

Oakman Elementary School teacher Lisa Younce enjoys spending after school time with Oakman Elementary School student Selena Saghir during the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project on Tuesday, October 29, 2019.

The Oakman Elementary School teachers are part of a national visiting teacher program in which trained educators schedule visits with a child and parent at home after school hours to build relationships with families and blur the line between school and home.

As both teachers make their way inside, Noah and his family find seats in the family's living room. Noah, 6, smiles and eyes a nearby book called "David Goes to School," bringing it over to his teachers to read aloud while his mother and siblings look on.

"He is very sweet, and we are working some things," Younce says of Noah, who beams as his teachers sit nearby.

Younce, a teacher at Oakman, has been trained by the nonprofit Parent Teacher Home Visits, whose model is used in 700 communities in 27 states and the District of Columbia.

Home visits are non-confrontational and non-punitive, program officials say, and educators don’t discuss missed classes or poor grades. The idea is for teachers to make contact with families to develop a strong, working partnership with parents and guardians.

"This works because it's about building that relationship with the family and the student," Younce said. "Sometimes, the students don’t realize teachers (exist) outside of school. Just seeing us walk down the street. We walk down the street from school, and they are excited about that."

Oakman Elementary School student Selena Saghir, left, plays with her barbie townhouse with Oakman Elementary School teachers Michelle Rawson and Lisa Younce during the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project Tuesday, October 29, 2019.

Research in 2018 by Johns Hopkins University and the nonprofit research organization RTI International has found home visits lead to measurable results including reducing chronic student absenteeism and improved performance on reading and writing tests and math proficiency.

All visits are voluntary, meaning no families are forced to participate, and any teacher on a visit has been trained and is compensated for his or her time.

Gina Martinez-Keddy, executive director of the nonprofit PTHV (Parent Teacher Home Visits), said for teachers, home visits combat implicit bias and help educators relate better to students and their families.

After the home visits, Martinez-Keddy says families realize how much teachers care about their kids, and they are less intimidated to approach the school and teacher.

"It's just such a powerful and simple model that makes a lot of sense to anyone who uses it," Martinez-Keddy said. "People love it. It makes such a difference. For a modest financial investment, school can see incredible outcomes."

Chronic absenteeism is a major problem in Michigan schools. In Michigan, 19.7% — or 290,364 students — from K-12 were chronically absent in 2018-19. The number has been climbing since 2015-16 when 14.7% — or 221,067 students —were chronically absent.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Education adopted the definition of chronically absent as students who miss 10% or more. Students are also counted as absent if they miss more than 50% of a school day.

In Dearborn schools, 10.2% of students were considered chronically absent last school year, which is about 2,174 students. Younce said the district has about 48 teachers trained in the program and have been doing two annual visits since fall 2016 after the teacher's union introduced the program.

"We have a lot of different types of families here and a lot of different needs with students," Younce said. "We have refugee families. We have families with trust issues. They didn’t want their kids going on field trips."

Oakman Elementary School teachers Michelle Rawson, left, and Lisa Younce enjoy spending after school time with Oakman Elementary School student Selena Saghir during a Parent Teacher Home Visit Project on Tuesday, October 29, 2019.

"We wanted a way to connect with students and families and let them know we are here for them, and we are a team working with the students to build them up," Younce said.

As part of the visit, Younce asks parents what their hopes and dreams are for their children.

"Some say they want them to be happy, successful and be a good human being. Sometimes, they say 'I want them to be a doctor,'" Younce said.

Younce said the students are picked randomly for visits but sometimes there are barriers the district wants to address during a visit. One student, Younce said, was aggressive in school and unable to communicate his feeling.

"His mom talked to the office and not to the teachers," Younce said. "It was beneficial to go visit him. I brought a puzzle. He was a lot different at school. He would try to communicate with me before he got aggressive."

Dearborn has two schools that use the program. District spokesman David Mustonen said the district plans to continue the program and the budget can support the current amount of trained teachers, but additional teachers have not been approved to be added.

The district has committed about $40,000 to the program, Mustonen said, which includes about $20,000 in compensation for the teachers involved and about the same amount to cover the cost of training. 

"Results include stronger and more positive relationships between teachers and families, and students who feel positive about coming to school," Mustonen said. "Schools involved have reported student attendance has improved as well as parent involvement."

Detroit Public School Community District also uses the PTHV program in 45 of its 100 schools. According to the district, last school year 5,567 home visits occurred involving 3,758 students.

DPSCD officials said they evaluated the program and found students in the programs attended 3% more school days and saw a 7% decrease in school suspensions than those who did not participate.

Students improved their reading and math scores on a local assessment by two points compared to their peers. Ninety-three percent of parents surveyed said they felt their relationship was stronger with the teacher after the home visit, DPSCD officials said.

Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the program has been going well in the district with more teachers participating every year and the district ensuring that teachers are compensated for their hours after school on the visits.

Oakman Elementary School teachers Michelle Rawson,left, and Lisa Younce enjoy spending after school time with Oakman Elementary School student Selena Saghir as they enjoy the glitter of a special jacket during the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project Tuesday, October 29, 2019.

"It connects the school with the home," said Martin, a former teacher. "When you are concentrating on making sure kids are in school every day, it means a lot when a teacher shows up to your house. It means the teacher cares and the parent and teacher are on the same page."

During the visit to the Hazimeh house in Dearborn, Younce and Rawson play Uno with Noah and his siblings, sitting on the carpeted floor of the bedroom Noah shares with his older brother.

During the visit, Noah told the teachers he wants to be a police officer when he grows up.

Younce asks his mother, whose first language is not English, what she hopes she has for her youngest child.

"I'm with him, and I support him," Sara said.

As part of her visits, Younce takes a selfie with each student and puts a copy of the photo on a special wall at school. She also gives students a copy of the photo to take home.

"Kids live in a home bubble and a school bubble," Younce said. "When we merge those together, and they know we are openly communicating with their parent, they try to be a better student at school and a better child at home."