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.
Memphis Delta Prep teachers practice classroom management skills during a training exercise.
PHOTO CREDIT: Caroline Bauman

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.”