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My First Home Visit With Larry Leonard

I still remember the first home visit I ever made to a student’s home. I was a teacher in the Milwaukee Public School system. It was not my idea, but rather a request made to me by my assistant principal at the time, Larry Leonard, who asked that I join him on a home visit. A few days prior I had expressed my displeasure with Mr. Leonard on his handling of a discipline matter with a young boy named Michael who had swore at me in front of the entire class. I had heard from several teachers that Michael was not “going to make it,” long before this incident in my classroom ever took place. Besides, Michael was a difficult student who didn’t care about school.

I remember looking at the run down houses, some with boards on the windows, others duct-taped with plastic.  Many of the houses had porches that looked as though they could cave at any moment.  I remember the sight of coffee cans filled with cigarette butts.  Broken bottles and trash filled the yards.  There were kids playing in the street, riding bikes and kicking cans.  A few girls jumped rope while older men sat on the porch and yelled at their neighbors across the way.  Every now and then a car would drive by with loud music and the horn would honk and you could hear somebody yell out, “Boy, get outta da street befo you get hits by a car.”   

Mr. Leonard was a good man who passionately loved kids. The kids loved him and respected him and you could see they enjoyed being around him.  Often, I would talk to him about his job as an administrator.  He would tell me that that there were days that he wanted to walk away from it, that the job seemed impossible, but that he couldn’t leave his kids.  “Besides”, he would say, “I feel these kids need me.  I want to make sure that they are given a fair chance and treated right.  If we don’t take time to get to know them, who will?  For many of our kids, school is the only place they feel safe.”

As we walked up the front stairs, Mr Leonard suddenly stopped and said, “You need to know something Mr. Casas.  Michael lives with his grandmother. His mother died in a house fire two years ago. Michael and his brothers were playing with matches one night and the house caught on fire, killing his mother and two siblings. Michael has never been the same since.”

I remember feeling paralyzed by Mr. Leonard’s words. How could have I have been so focused on myself and worse yet, want this young boy suspended and removed from my class? How could I have not known this about Michael? Why didn’t I take the time to get to know him sooner? Mr. Leonard called in through the screen door, “Mrs. Smith? Michael, anybody home?”  A small, old lady came to the door and as she opened it smiled at Mr. Leonard, and simply said, “it is so good to see you again.”

More than 20 years have passed since I visited Michael’s house on the north side of Milwaukee. Yet, the embrace I saw Mrs. Smith give Mr. Leonard that day is a memory I have never forgotten. You see, Mr. Leonard had visited Michael’s home early on during his 6th grade year and several times more after that terrible tragedy. Mr. Leonard was more than a principal to Michael, he was like a father.

Two years ago, I found myself one day sifting through grade reports and was struck by the number of failing grades by many of our freshman students. How could this be? What more could we do to reduce the number of failures among our 9th graders. A couple of weeks later I attended a conference with my guidance team. During the conference we were asked to put together an action plan that could be implemented by the beginning of the next school year and monitor the progress of that plan through the collection of data. The idea of monitoring standardized tests was tossed around, but that did not provoke a strong interest. Then I remembered the grade reports that I had recently reviewed and shared the thought with my team of looking at 8th graders who were considered as high risk based on their 8th grade performance and wondered if we could explore the possibility of taking a proactive approach and visiting with the students and their families during the summer before the start of high school. And just like that, our Home Visit Program was born.

When we returned to school we didn’t waste any time and met as a group and worked on reviewing our action plan. The plan included the following:
1. Work with the Middle School to determine the students that were considered high risk based on past performance.
2. Select 20 students and match them up with a counselor and an administrator.
3. Determine teams, timelines, how to approach families,parent letter, schedule, talking points, meeting, follow up(s), data collection, share out of information and recognition of students/families, etc.
4. Compilation of gift bags

Three weeks prior to the start of the 2011-2012 school year, two of my counselors contacted families and scheduled 20 home visits. We felt it was important for the counselors and administrators to team up and conduct the home visits together. We provided gift bags, visited with the students and families about their student’s MS experience, the positives and challenges of MS, what they most looked forward to in high school and what they were most concerned about. We talked about their interests, their goals and hopes for HS.  In other words, we focused on making a connection, setting the foundation for trust, and establishing a plan for support. What we were hoping for was to gain some insight on how we could support our families so they could become advocates for their children in the transition to high school in order to help them experience success. Although we all recognized that home visits were not a novel idea, it provided both our families and our staff an avenue for communication and hope that together we could provide a positive environment where their student felt valued and safe.

Throughout the school year, our guidance and administrative team followed up with the students on a regular basis, checked in to see how their experience was going, worked to get them connected to a school activity, monitored grades, contacted their family to offer support and share reminders about attending important school events. We held breakfast and luncheons for the students and their families. We conducted surveys with the students, collected both quantitative and qualitative data, and shared those results with our staff and Board of Education. The response was extremely positive. Other staff offered to help with the visits and the board supported our efforts. This past spring, our school Foundation awarded us with a $1,000 grant to finance the gift bags and meals for additional students.  With our BOE and Foundation’s support and  help from additional staff, we were able to increase our visits this summer and conducted thirty-eight (38) home visits.  Early results from our data collected last year show that we are making a positive impact with students and families. Our goal is to continue to increase the number of home visits each summer by twenty students until we are able to personally connect with every student who is at risk of failing as they prepare to enter high school. The personal connections that we are making give us hope that we can make a positive difference in the life of a young student by simply reaching out to them and their families and getting to know them on a more personal level.

I often reflect back on my days in Milwaukee. I feel so blessed that I was able to benefit from the wisdom of strong leaders like Mr. Leonard  that shaped my thinking about the value I place on establishing meaningful relationships with everyone I come in contact with on a daily basis. I recognize that the Michael’s of the world all have a story to share. We just need to listen to our kids.

If we don’t take time to listen and get to know them, who will?

Dedicated to the late Larry Leonard. I still think of you often and miss our talks.

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