On a Tuesday afternoon in February, the gym at Domus Academy echoes with the sound of jumping jacks. Hands clap in unison. Polished Nikes squeak against the floorboards.
The 12 boys of Domus’s basketball team stand in a loose circle at center court, warming up for practice. They bark out numbers with military-like intensity: “One! Two! Three!” When they have finished, they begin a jog around the gym in two straight shoulder-to-shoulder lines.
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Their coach, Richard Cheng, who is also Domus’s curriculum director, watches from the sidelines with his arms crossed over his chest. He is young, just three years out of college. His close-cropped black hair is paired with a neat gray zip-up sweater and dress pants.
“Let’s go, guys!” he shouts.
At his words, the boys that have been lagging pick up their pace. One of them holds up a pair of sagging khaki pants as he sprints to catch up, and another clutches at a stitch in his side.
“Let’s go!” Cheng repeats. His shoes leave thin streaks of black on the waxed floor as he jogs to join his students. “First game tomorrow! Let’s pick it up!”
In tomorrow’s basketball game, the Domus Academy Phoenixes have a lot to prove. It is the first game their school will ever play. As part of New Haven’s education reform initiative, Domus Academy — domus means “home” in Latin — opened in September to serve 50 of the city’s neediest middle school students. A sixth are involved in the juvenile justice system. More than half live with guardians or in foster homes. Three quarters have special education portfolios related to social, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Most were expelled from their previous schools. And at one point or another, in one way or another, the traditional education system has given up on all of them.
Split into two teams, the boys, Cheng, and a few other staff members begin a scrimmage. Some players don’t know what to do when they catch the ball. Others make clumsy attempts to mimic their favorite NBA stars, dribbling the basketball between their legs only to have it bounce away. While some of his teammates lob air balls, one student, Javon, arcs his shots fluidly into the net. (All students’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.) Javon is a tall eighth-grader who dribbles the ball as if it were a natural extension of his hand. He rarely passes, preferring instead to drive down the court, body angled forward.
“Of course we’re gonna win tomorrow,” Javon says later, his voice exuding swaggering confidence. “I know what you’re thinking — it’s our first game ever. But we’re good. Hell yes, we’re gonna win.”
In 1998, New Haven city officials began a billion-plus dollar project of public school renovation and rebuilding. The result was a fleet of more than 40 clean, modern buildings with floor-to-ceiling windows and bright, open classrooms. Urban Youth Center, in the struggling Dixwell neighborhood, was one of the few schools that New Haven chose not to renovate. It was housed in a long, low building, circa 1968, with a patchy grass lawn and only a few windows in the dark brick façade.
Urban Youth was intended to serve middle schoolers who had failed in other academic settings. By most measures, however, it too failed: its attendance rate was 35%, and test scores were the lowest in the district. On the 2007 Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMTs), more than half of Urban Youth students scored at a “below basic” level, putting them among the lowest 5% statewide.
“Whatever was going on at Urban Youth,” Cheng says, “it wasn’t working.”
In October 2009, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano and New Haven Public Schools announced a sweeping four-year initiative aimed at improving the district’s test scores — which lag far behind Connecticut’s averages — as well as cutting the dropout rate by 50% and closing the achievement gap. Schools were separated into Tiers I, II, and III based on their performance. Tier I schools would be given higher levels of autonomy, while Tiers II and III would be more closely monitored, with the possibility of some staff replacements and other restructuring. Under the first round of tiering last March, only two schools were named Tier III “turnaround schools” — in essence, a fourth level that mandated a complete overhaul. Urban Youth was one of them.
To the surprise of many in the district, New Haven Public Schools invited a small, little-known charity group called Domus to take over and reinvent Urban Youth, though it would remain a public school. Domus, which started in 1972 as a home for boys, has had a successful track record in helping struggling youth. The organization runs a community center, an after school program, and two group homes based in Stamford, as well as a middle school, Trailblazers Academy, that serves more than 150 students who have failed in traditional academic settings. Though their test scores still fall short of district levels, Trailblazers students, who begin the school year more than three grade levels behind in reading and math, consistently post dramatic improvements. The hope was that, under Domus’s purview, Urban Youth’s students would make similar advances.
Mike McGuire was the principal of Trailblazers Academy when he agreed to become the director of Urban Youth’s replacement, the fledgling Domus Academy. Under McGuire’s leadership, Domus Academy still serves many of the students who attended Urban Youth, but almost everything else has changed. In his new role, McGuire has worked to give the school a fresh start: a whole new staff, a new philosophy, and eventually — years after the renovation of most New Haven public schools — a new building. For now, Domus Academy has a permanent home in the second floor of a bright, clean “swing space” in Hamden, which often houses schools for a few years during construction.
At the entrance of Domus Academy’s space is a mural of a phoenix. Its cobalt blue neck arched upwards, wings spreading, it emerges from the ruins at its feet into a blazing red-and-orange sky. Early every morning, in their own cobalt-blue uniform shirts, Domus’s students file past the mural. In assembly, they stand, place their hands over their hearts, and recite their school pledge — a promise to respect themselves, to treat others with empathy, to persevere when times are difficult. Just as Domus Academy was born from a school that had been destroyed, its students vow to “embody the attributes of a phoenix”: to rise from the ashes.
In their Hamden swing space, Stephanie Sun’s six students have pulled their desks into a small semicircle around her. In front of them, English packets are open, but only two students are reading. One girl sucks on a pink bead that dangles from her braid. Her classmate drums insistently on the desk in a frantic, uneven rhythm.
“Chester, can you stop that, please?” Sun says. She is smaller than many of her students, but her voice is energetic and surprisingly loud. Sun begins to read a passage about April Fools’ Day, taken from a sample CMT test. After a few sentences, she says, “Popcorn Angelo.”
Angelo, his face pained, halts through a few words, stuttering over “people” and “comment.” When he finishes a sentence, he looks expectantly up at Sun, who says, “Popcorn Chris!”
Chris has dragged his desk halfway across the room and is looking aimlessly out the window, his chair tilted back. “I don’t wanna read.”
Unfazed, Sun tries again. “Popcorn Isaiah.”
Sun is fresh out of college, having graduated from NYU last year, and is now a part of the Teach For America program. Three of her colleagues are also TFAers, and most of Domus’s academic teachers are recent graduates. Though staff of a variety of ages were hired before the school opened in the fall, by February, four of the staff members over forty that began the year had quit.
“Traditional teachers, with all their years of wisdom — well, that’s exactly it,” Cheng says. “They have 20 years of expectations on what education should be, and we defer to them on the grand scheme of ‘normal’ education. But in terms of our kids, we needed people with moldable talents and mentalities. For our kids, the traditional education systems haven’t worked — so why would we go with traditional educators?”
Domus’s academic curriculum, too, has been designed to accommodate students who have failed in traditional settings. A heavy focus is placed on data; at the end of every class, teachers fill out forms assessing their students’ success in achieving various objectives and constantly reevaluate lesson plans. Class sizes are small, with 12 students at most. Teachers try to use creative, interactive lessons to keep students engaged.
Isaiah, chewing on the end of his pencil, reads smoothly; Sun does not have to prompt him on a single word. He pauses to tell a story about an April Fools joke he played on his sister, with a fake knife and ketchup, before popcorning Tykem. Tykem works through the paragraph more slowly than most students half his age. He pronounces the g in the word “might,” and cannot decipher “September.” After Jordyn refuses to read, Sun popcorns back to Isaiah.
Isaiah is small, with shoulder-length dreadlocks. He is the sole painter of one of Domus Academy’s most prominent murals, a brown-and-green alien cityscape. He wears a black uniform sweatshirt instead of the usual Domus blue— an honor given only to the six students who completed the marking period without a grade lower than C.
After finishing the passage on April Fools, Sun’s class popcorns through another CMT lesson. Chris brings his desk back into the semicircle and gives a halting reading. Isaiah becomes agitated. He rattles his fingers against the desk. When Sun opens a discussion about the origins of different holidays, he makes a comment about his ass. Sun chides him: “Was that really necessary?” He grunts and says, “Yes.”
Finally, when she popcorns him again, Isaiah jumps to his feet, sweeping the packet off his desk. “Man, fuck this shit!” he shouts and storms out the door.
For half a century, politicians have been promising to reform American education. As the gap between white and black, rich and poor, grows wider, as American children fall farther and farther behind their international peers, the mantra has been: fix the broken system. Save America’s children.
In 2001, George W. Bush proposed “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB). At the bill’s core was the implementation of tests — lots of them — and the belief that standards-based education would close the achievement gap.
Little argument can be made that there has been no improvement in the 10 years since NCLB. Test scores have gone up for most sub-groups, especially those in the middle percentiles. New Haven’s own school reform initiative is a byproduct of NCLB; though Associate Superintendent Garth Harries claims its measuring standards are “more complex” than those used by the federal government, New Haven schools are still largely evaluated based on the results of federally mandated tests.
Since NCLB, an increased awareness has also been placed on the plight of “at-risk” youth: poor urban students, especially minorities, who fall on the wrong side of the achievement gap. Last year, the blockbuster documentary Waiting For Superman highlighted the country’s thousands of “dropout factories,” largely urban schools in which the overwhelming majority of students do not make it through their senior year of high school. Superman celebrated charter schools that took at-risk youth and turned them into high-achieving college graduates. Headlines praised schools where 100% of students attend college, teenagers who went from “homeless to Harvard,” from “the projects to Yale.”
But at Domus, as Cheng puts it, “our kids are not going to go to Harvard.” Unlike the poor, urban students at charter schools such as the highly successful Achievement First group, Domus students were specifically singled out by the district as failing. Most do not choose to come to Domus. They are forced: they have literally nowhere else to go.
Kids with social, emotional, and behavioral disorders, kids with special education plans and reading levels equivalent to the average six-year-old’s, do not usually pass tests in a year’s time. Samuel Stringfield is the editor of the Journal for the Education of Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR); he says his publication has never printed any studies of alternative schools because “nobody has figured out what would be evidence of their success.” In a country heavily focused on results, the idea of specifically seeking out these students is unappealing.
According to Stringfield, if education reform is an onion, Domus Academy’s students are “the last layer” — the one that has yet to be peeled. While programs exist, and have always existed, for students like Domus’s, they are usually no more than warehouses, posting results much like those of Urban Youth Center. And while there are many charter schools that welcome, even recruit, urban minorities, Stringfield says he has never heard of another charter group that specifically seeks out the system’s most challenging children. At Domus, says Cheng, “It’s not about, ‘I guess we’ll take them.’ It’s about, ‘We want them.’”
I meet Domus English teacher Jenna McDermit outside her house at 6 a.m. on a Monday. The air is cool and damp, and circles of yellow lamplight reveal streets shining with a fine layer of new rain.
“I have to warn you,” McDermit says as we get into the car, “there’s a 70 percent chance she won’t show up.”
For weeks now, McDermit has driven to the house of one of her students, Alexis, and given her a ride to Domus. Alexis had been showing up to school so infrequently, once every two weeks at the most, that she was bound for truancy court. When she did come to class, she was one of McDermit’s most frustrating students, volatile and prone to frequent outbursts.
“She’s really intelligent,” McDermit says. “The kid just needs to come to school.”
For the first week that McDermit showed up at her door, Alexis came faithfully outside, and to school. During the 20-minute car rides, they didn’t often speak. McDermit bought a Taylor Swift CD for them to listen to, learned Alexis’s favorite donut, and how she liked her hot chocolate.
By now, the novelty has worn off, and more often than not, Alexis simply does not answer the door. As we drive, McDermit dials Alexis’s number. The second time it goes to voicemail, she sends a text message: Get up. You promised.
Many Domus teachers drive students to school. One day in the Domus hallway, Cheng shouted down a boy at whose house he had left a scarf the morning before. Cheng had learned that the boy, whose attendance was spotty at best, didn’t show up to school because he didn’t like the morning walk to his bus stop. “For most kids, that’s not a problem, but we’re not in the business of saying, ‘Gotcha!’” Cheng explains. He served as door-to-door transportation for the boy until they could arrange for a district bus to pick him up outside his house.
More than anything, Domus’s educational philosophy is driven by the belief that serving its students does not end in the classroom. It begins with getting students to school, and extends to fostering relationships with their parents, to making sure they aren’t out on the streets between school and dinnertime. It is a recognition that, in order to be able to learn to read, students with so many issues in their lives need much more than an encouraging face at the front of the classroom.
At the core of this program — what Sun calls a “holistic approach to the child” — are “family advocates.” Domus’s three advocates act as a mini-social services department and a point of contact for Domus families. They call students’ homes nightly to check in with their parents and do everything from finding grief counseling to helping families pay rent to making sure that students have the right kinds of khaki uniform pants.
At Domus, the school day runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., hours after most New Haven students have come home. “Juvenile crime triples between the hours of three and six,” says Jonathan Hoch, Domus Academy’s Chief Community Officer, who developed its afterschool programming. After regular school hours have ended at 3:15, students can pick from extracurricular programs like African drumming, art therapy, video games, cooking, and the ever-popular basketball team.
“Things happen in our kids’ lives, where we ask them to add two plus two, and they’re thinking, ‘The rent, the rent, my family can’t pay the rent, two plus two is five, what if we have to live on the streets?’” says Mike Duggan, the executive director of the umbrella Domus charter group. “They need a lot of support, and we’re going to do whatever it takes.”
McDermit and I pull up in front of an aging duplex in a neighborhood near Union Station that students call “The Hill.” McDermit dials again. No answer, again.
“Most mornings, I’m sitting outside her house, banging my head on the window,” McDermit says. “But whether she comes outside or not, whether she cusses me out the day before or not, I will be that adult that is there for her in her life, outside her door at 6:15 every morning.”
Minutes later, I watch from the warmth of the passenger seat as McDermit, dressed in purple rain boots and hugging her jacket against her chest, paces back and forth on the porch.
It’s now 6:20, and dawn is threading grainy and blue across the sky. McDermit presses the glowing doorbell a few times in between calls to Alexis’s cell phone. Finally a light flickers in the upstairs hallway. A few minutes later the screen door opens. McDermit exchanges words with a shadowy figure — Alexis’s mother — before the door slams closed.
When McDermit gets back into the car, she is quiet for a moment. She kneads her forehead with one hand, the other gripping the steering wheel.
“She cursed at me,” she says, forcing a smile. Alexis is still inside, taking a bath. We drive away, and the windows in her house darken again.
“My teachers, they don’t stop pushing me. They don’t want me to be on the streets,” Javon says. “They want me to be an NBA player, because that’s what I’m best at.” He straightens. “I know I can do it.”
On the day of the game, Javon leads his team in laps around the Stamford gym of Trailbazers Academy, Domus Academy’s first opponent. Counting off jumping jacks, Javon shouts the odd numbers at the top of his lungs, and teammates chorus the evens in response.
“It’s like I’m the leader of the team,” Javon says. “My teachers expect me to be the leader of the class, too. I’ve told my friends more than once, ‘It’s time to step up now.’ We’ve got this opportunity, let’s step up our game.”
Javon and his teammates, including Isaiah, warm up under a banner that declares Trailblazers Academy to be last year’s junior high conference champions. For all his bravado, Javon seems nervous. He drops the ball as he goes in for a layup. His shots bounce consistently off the rim. His missed three-pointer brushes the bottom of the net.
In the first few minutes of the game, Trailblazers Academy looks to be the better team. They execute their plays smoothly, while the Domus Academy Phoenixes look inexperienced and unorganized. Javon hogs the ball. Isaiah makes brilliant drives, but is much too short to get off real lay-ups.
Still, with scrappy defense and help from Javon and another tall boy, Domus stays within a few points. As the game goes on, Cheng becomes more and more agitated. He is rarely anywhere near the bench, but inches, even feet, onto the court.
Behind Cheng on the sidelines are Domus Academy’s fans. While no players’ parents could make the trek to Stamford, every single teacher is here, holding up posters marked with strings of exclamation points. Sun sports a uniform shirt that matches the one her students were wearing that afternoon. The teachers exclaim with every movement of the ball. They applaud every missed shot.
Domus’s teachers have more than their youth in common. While their students are almost all poor and black, the teachers come from what McDermit calls “the right side of the education gap.” The four TFAers attended prestigious universities: Boston College, NYU, The University of Chicago. Cheng, who did his two years of TFA at Trailblazers before coming to Domus Academy this year, was a neuroscience major at Northwestern.
After graduating from NYU, Sun was offered a job teaching Mandarin to wealthy Manhattan preschoolers. But having volunteered with at-risk public school students in college, Sun says she felt it was “immoral” to do anything but Teach For America. “Having seen for myself the education gap, teenagers who were struggling with English when there were pre-K students learning another language, I felt like I had no choice.”
According to Samuel Stringfield, editor of JESPAR, the burnout rate for young teachers of at-risk students is “horrendous.” “They put their lives into these kids, which is wonderful,” he says, “but most of them simply can’t do it for more than two, three years.”
“It takes a special person to do this,” Domus Academy director Mike McGuire says. “This consumes you.”
McGuire has been with Domus since the umbrella organization’s inception. One wall of his office is covered in black-and-white photographs of students’ faces, some laughing, others staring solemnly at the camera. McGuire calls them his “successes and not-so-successes:” students he’s sent on to college, and students he has lost to the streets or to prison.
Though he is forceful in the hallways, commanding attention and respect from his students, in conversation McGuire is softspoken. There are moments in the day when he pauses in exhaustion: to take a deep breath in the midst of an argument with a student or to rest his forehead against the wall after a fight has been broken up.
Most fights occur when students are in the hallways between periods. One day before lunch, McGuire barks orders forcefully at students who have gathered, arguing and chasing each other. Some students respond with curses; others run away.
“I want you to eat lunch in the library today, Natrell,” McGuire says to a boy who is squabbling with a classmate on the stairs. Domus’s most difficult students eat lunch in separate, more heavily supervised areas, to keep disruptions down in the cafeteria.
“Can I go downstairs?” the boy begs.
“Oh my God. Man, shut up!” He turns to his classmate. “Fuck, get off of me! I’m going to smack you.”
McGuire closes his eyes for a second. “Appropriate or not, Natrell?” he says slowly. His voice grows sharp. “Let’s go.”
Natrell makes a last, threatening lunge at the boy he was fighting with, before turning toward the library. As Natrell walks away, muttering under his breath, McGuire shouts after him.
“Natrell, you know I love you. I love you, man.”
In July, the results of the Connecticut Mastery Tests that students took last month will be released. New Haven, like the federal government, relies on the CMTs to decide the fate of its schools, and as a result, Domus Academy prepared its students heavily; almost all had one-on-one tutoring sessions, sometimes daily. After he scored “below basic” on his CMTs at Urban Youth last year, one boy admitted he and his friends had decided it would be “cool to circle C” for all the answers on the fill-in-the-bubble sheet. To avoid such incidents and to keep distractions and disruptions down, this year, Domus students took their tests in pairs, or even individually. At a morning assembly before the March CMTs, Cheng insists he will drive to the houses of chronically absent students and watch them take their tests over the weekend. As he speaks, one girl shakes her head: “Well, I can’t tomorrow, ’cause I got court.”
Nobody is holding the illusion that Domus’s scores will be on par with New Haven’s as a whole, at least not yet. “The bottom line is, we can’t compete with some of these other schools. We’re coming in sixty percent behind the average,” Cheng says. At best, Domus students’ test scores will rise one or two grade levels — an enormous achievement, but they will still be four grade levels behind. Domus’s accomplishments are tempered with failures — with fights, with doorbells that are not answered, with tests that are not passed. To some on the outside, they may not even look like success.
Cheng tells me about one of his students, Martin, who didn’t show up at Domus until three weeks into the school year. He was in trouble with the law and acted out constantly. Now, when he’s angry with Cheng — which is still fairly often — Martin no longer says, “I’m going to fucking kill you,” but, “Get out of my face.”
“This is the progress that’s really critical to these kids,” Cheng says. “However rude saying ‘Get out of my face’ might be, it’s a step in the right direction, and I’m proud of him.”
Domus Academy loses the basketball game.
With four minutes left, the Phoenixes trail by seven points. Javon moves easily through three players, weaving in across the court. On the sidelines, Domus’s supporters shriek in excitement as he whips the basketball behind his back. But Javon’s fourth fake fails. He stumbles, loses control, and the ball is stolen and carried away.
Javon, head hung, is slow to run back. Still two feet onto the court, Cheng nags him, “Come on, play some defense!” It’s too late. The deficit grows to nine points.
A tall, husky boy from Domus dribbles forward and hands the ball off. Javon drives in angularly, perhaps too hard, and the ball bounces out of his control. He falls to the ground and stays there.
“Are we quitting or are we playing?” Cheng barks.
Javon is lying with his back flat on the floorboards, hands hiding his face. At Cheng’s encouragement, he stands up, but slowly, with the deliberateness of an elderly man. The clock hits zero before he makes it back to the defensive end.
“All right. All right, good job guys. Shake hands.”
Cheng claps his players on the back as they trudge to meet the other team, shaking hands and even, on Javon’s part, bumping chests with a few other star players. When they return to the sidelines, the Domus Academy Phoenixes are greeted with applause and cheers. From their teachers, there are hugs. The boys press their arms against their sides and turn sheepishly away, but they are smiling, despite themselves.
Today, there were no fights. No outbursts. Not even a curse word.