Annex struggles to teach city’s troubled students

High school teacher Lorraine Dotts put butterfly stickers on her classroom door to represent this year’s theme: metamorphosis. Dotts wants students to change. She wants them to get better grades, increase their attendance, and improve their attitude.

Dotts teaches science at Cross Annex, a program connected to Wilbur Cross, the largest public high school in New Haven. Cross Annex looks and feels like a separate school, with its own administrators, teachers and building located some 10 blocks from Wilbur Cross. Wilbur Cross has 1,468 students while Cross Annex has 135 students, most of whom performed poorly at Wilbur Cross and were asked to leave.

Vice Principal Syd Lillick, who runs Cross Annex, said the program was established 10 years ago to help students with low grades and poor attendance make up credits and graduate with their class. At its inception, Lillick said, Cross Annex educated students who wanted to learn and could benefit from the school’s small environment. In the past several years, though, Lillick said Wilbur Cross has sent more disruptive, less motivated students to Cross Annex in order to relieve Wilbur Cross’ own disciplinary problems.

“The integrity of the annex has been compromised,” Lillick said. “The real reason for the annex has been eroded.”

Wilbur Cross Principal Robert Canelli acknowledged that Cross Annex has a negative reputation, and he said he wants to dispel the “myth” that only bad kids go there.

For the most part, Cross Annex does fulfill its initial goal of helping students get their high school diplomas. Some 30 Cross Annex students graduated last year, and while only 12 will graduate this year, the number is still more than half of Cross Annex’s senior class of 22 students. Lillick said the 60 or 70 alumni who have visited in the past 10 years all said they would not have graduated if not for Cross Annex.

Many students are unhappy at Cross Annex, especially when they first arrive. Some said they miss their friends and teachers at Wilbur Cross. Others said they resented the fact that Cross Annex offers no extracurriculars. Although Annex students are allowed to participate in after-school activities at Wilbur Cross, Lillick said few do, except for three or four students who play on sports teams. An Annex student’s day includes seven core academic classes, nearly back-to-back, with two breaks for snack and lunch. Cross Annex does not offer art, music or study hall, and seniors are the only students who take physical education, just because the state mandates it. Unlike Wilbur Cross, Cross Annex does not have a library or a gym.

“It’s a stark difference from what you were experiencing at [Wilbur] Cross,” Dotts said. “Kids who are brand new don’t like it because they feel like they’ve come to their little Alcatraz, or prison.”

Junior Angelina Mattei said, “Most people want to go back. All their friends are at [Wilbur] Cross. All the activities are at [Wilbur] Cross. Nothing is here.”

Annex science teacher Andy Wight said students at Cross Annex feel they are being punished, in part because staff at Wilbur Cross threatens to send students to Cross Annex if they do not behave.

“It gives us a very bad perception and a bad rep,” Wight said. “[Students] come from an angry place because they feel like they’ve been told to come here.”

Canelli has a more positive view of the two schools’ relationship. While Wight said Annex students and teachers view Cross Annex as a step child to Wilbur Cross, Canelli called Cross Annex a sister school. He said he has tried this year to reach out to students and teachers there. He visits Cross Annex occasionally, and he has invited the teachers to faculty meetings at Wilbur Cross.

“I do want to make Cross Annex kids feel like they’re part of [Wilbur] Cross,” he said.

Lillick said Cross Annex is not prepared to handle some of Wilbur Cross’ most challenging students.

“[Wilbur] Cross has the resources to deal with some of the students with multiple problems, but we don’t,” Lillick said.

Running Cross Annex is difficult, she said, when the school has just one nurse one day a week, one social worker one-and-a-half days a week and no guidance counselor. Even the students joke about having a nurse only one day a week.

“You can only die on a Tuesday,” sophomore Brandon Foster said.

Several students at Cross Annex said they and their friends were all trying to transfer to Wilbur Cross or to another school. But teachers and administrators said that when given the chance to return to Wilbur Cross, few students do. Students who do well enough to qualify for a transfer worry that if they return to Wilbur Cross, their attendance and grades will slip again, staff said. Some students grow to like Cross Annex’s small environment, the camaraderie among students, and several of the teachers.

“This is small so you can learn better,” senior Morgan Barrett said. “They help you out on like a one-on-one basis.”

The mood among students on a recent Monday ranged from morose to boisterous.

Around 8 a.m., sophomore Wess Hoskie gestured at a room of silent students who had arrived late and were waiting for their second class to begin.

“Look at their faces,” Hoskie said. “Tell me if you think they’re happy.”

An hour later, a more jovial group of students sat in the same room waiting for third period to start. They poked fun at each other and laughed loudly.

Jenny Saysiri sat at an empty table and stared into space. She received high honors at the annex in the fall for getting good grades, but she has since skipped some 60 days of school.

“I don’t have friends here,” said Saysiri, who transferred from Wilbur Cross this year. “I wasn’t motivated to come to school. I don’t like school, period.”

Lillick’s biggest challenge appears to be keeping students in line. She said discipline problems have increased in the past 10 years, as Wilbur Cross transfers more disruptive students and fewer students who, like Barrett, simply need a smaller learning environment.

Bonnie Mills, the annex security officer, said the worst offenders brought liquor to school and started a fire in the boys’ bathroom. For the most part, the misbehavior entails cursing or arguing with teachers.

While Lillick laments the lack of discipline among students, Dotts, who has taught in New Haven public schools for 27 years, insists that misbehavior is no more common at Cross Annex than at other schools. She said friction between students and teachers sometimes occurs because of their different backgrounds. Of the eight teachers at Cross Annex, Dotts is the only black teacher, but the student body is nearly 50 percent black.

“A lot of our boys are street-educated, and if you’re not aware of that lifestyle and you talk down or make them feel bad of their lifestyle, that will be a problem,” Dotts said. “They will call you racist.”

Dotts said she is more laid back with the students because she shares their upbringing. She said her students might reside in a poor neighborhood, live in a single-parent home, or have children of their own.

“They are challenging, don’t get me wrong,” Dotts said of her students. “But that’s the nature of the beast, of being a teenager, and that’s my job.”

Barrett, for one, said she tries to focus on her academics and stay out of trouble.

“I’m here to basically learn,” she said. “I’m not here to play, goof around. I’m here to earn my credits and get out.”

Freshman Dan Rodriguez is one of the students at Cross Annex, a school that increasingly educates disruptive students.
Gillian Gillers
Freshman Dan Rodriguez is one of the students at Cross Annex, a school that increasingly educates disruptive students.

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