February 15, 2011

The boys of Domus Academy are waiting. After running laps and doing jumping jacks, they kneel in a semicircle on the gymnasium floor, focused intently on their coach. Or, more specifically, on the basket of white jerseys at his feet.

Today is their last practice. Tomorrow, they will travel to Stamford to play Trailblazer Academy in a middle school basketball game. It is an enormous milestone: the game will not just be their first, but their school’s, as well. Domus Academy came into existence less than six months ago, as part of New Haven’s school reform initiative. It replaced the failing Urban Youth Middle School as a home — the school’s name in Latin — for 50 six-through-eighth grade students who have literally nowhere else to go. Struggling with emotional, behavioral, and learning disabilities, as well as often-turbulent home lives, Domus Academy students have a lot to prove in tomorrow’s basketball game. They also have a lot to prove on the Connecticut Mastery Tests they will take in two weeks — tests that will, in part, decide the success of their fledgling school.

But today, the Domus Academy Phoenixes are not waiting for their impending games or tests. They are waiting for the jerseys their coach, Richard Cheng — Domus’ curriculum director — is handing out. And they aren’t waiting patiently; they whisper anxiously and shift from knee to knee. They want to look good. They want the right number.

Cheng talks them down. “Don’t worry whether you get a famous jersey,” he says. A few boys exchange knowing glances. “Look, seriously. You get number 14 — sure, I can’t think of any NBA stars with 14. But you get number 14, and then years from now, some kid is going to go, ‘I want 14. That’s Walker’s number.’” He looks pointedly at one of his shifting students.

Though Cheng distributes the jerseys at random, the boys take their uniforms with surprisingly little complaint. They stride confidently behind a partition and moments later emerge looking like a team. With the words “Domus Academy” emblazoned across their chests, they disperse onto the court, admiring one another as they tuck in their jerseys.

“Those look nice,” Cheng says.

One of the boys puffs out his chest. “Especially on me,” he says, confidently. “I look sexy.”

Cheng rolls his eyes and throws a basketball into the boy’s waiting arms. “Let’s play.”

To find out how the Phoenixes did in their first game, and to learn more about Domus Academy and New Haven education reform, check out the April issue of the Yale Daily News Magazine.