Despite what the skyline and popular knowledge may suggest, Yale is not the only school in New Haven. While this is as obvious an observation as “The sky is blue” or “Tom Brady is the greatest NFL quarterback of all time” (no bias from this Bostonian author whatsoever), the breadth, diversity, successes and struggles of New Haven schools — public or private, elementary or college — often go without recognition, especially within the Yale community. In New Haven there are 32 public elementary and middle schools, 20 magnet schools, 13 private schools, 10 public high schools, five transitional schools, two universities (not counting the confusingly named University of New Haven, actually located in West Haven), one four-year college and one community college. These institutions range from private, university-affiliated preschools to massive, heavily funded public schools; from wealthy elementary and middle schools to brand new charter schools; and to magnet high schools for “health sciences and sports medicine.” In short, the New Haven school system is as broad and diverse as the city it accommodates. While all the schools in the city deserve their own spotlight, this piece will focus on one.

Near the base of towering East Rock on Orange Street stands Wilbur Cross High School. With an enrollment of 1,520 students, Wilbur Cross is the largest comprehensive public high school in the city. Some students come from as nearby as the neighborhoods of East Rock or Fairhaven, while others commute in from nearby suburbs like Ansonia, Derby or Guilford. With an 88 percent minority and 80 percent “economically disadvantaged” student body, according to the NHPS website, the school has employed four principals in the last 10 years. Their mascot is the Governors; their colors are red and white. Each Thanksgiving, the football team squares off against Hillhouse High School in the annual Elm City Bowl.

But more pressingly, Wilbur Cross ranks as one of the worst-performing high schools in Connecticut, according to recent evaluations. However, while the school may be empirically underperforming, any visitor can see that it confronts a set of problems that many higher-performing schools do not have to face.

Many of the issues facing Wilbur Cross originate outside of the classroom. As Assistant Principal Dina Natalino stated, “We are dealing with New Haven, and with that comes issues that bring themselves into the school. If there are problems going on in the neighborhood, they come into the school, and then it becomes a school issue.” Many students’ home lives are less than ideal. Natalino continues, “We want to picture that you go home, you have a snack and you sit at the table and you do your homework. And that’s not the reality for a good percentage of the kids. Not only do they leave here to go to work, some of them are supporting themselves, some of them take care of brothers and sisters to all hours of the night. It’s not the fairy tale that we would like it to be for all kids.”

The external hardships many of the students experience follow them into the classroom. Many students have to work after-school jobs or face unstable situations at home, which necessarily hampers studying and performance at school. Many students have witnessed violence in their neighborhoods; some have suffered the deaths of loved ones. “I’ve been to three funerals of students who died from violence,” Wilbur Cross English teacher Barbara Sasso states. “Many students know someone who was shot, or killed, or in jail. And there’s lots of stress that comes from growing up in an environment like that. There is lots of post-traumatic stress that kids come to school with and that makes for challenging classroom environments.” In the face of such stressors and pressure, attending school can seem like a difficult or meaningless endeavor. Accordingly, the school’s largest problem is attendance.

“Truancy is our biggest problem,” Natalino states. “We have a very high number of chronically truant students.” “Chronically truant” refers to students who have been absent for more than 10 percent of school days at a given point in the term.

“And there’s only so much you can do,” Sasso states. “You can follow up on them, but you can’t pick them up and drag them back to school. I had one student who wasn’t there one day and so I texted her and found out that she had moved in with her grandmother somewhere in Massachusetts, just like that.” Attendance, or lack thereof, is a characteristic example of a school problem stemming from external circumstances. While Wilbur Cross can improve its attendance rates, it’s not likely to ever fix them entirely.

The school is also tasked with providing students with good opportunities after graduation. Wilbur Cross students take a variety of paths after high school: While some students earn acceptance to elite Ivy League schools, for others college is not an option or a goal. As Martin Clark, a junior Wilbur Cross student in Advanced Placement courses, stated, “That’s the mind-set of a lot of kids in lower-level classes: Why should I get a diploma?” But it’s these exact mind-sets that Mrs. Natalino is working to reverse.

Wilbur Cross also faces a slew of minor issues common among inner-city schools but less so in more affluent, less urban districts. The school has an 8 percent mobility rate — meaning that a high portion of students are transferring in and out at any given time. Wilbur Cross also has a fully operational, city-funded day care for the children of students — it houses both the babies of Wilbur Cross students and students who attend other high schools in the city. And the nurse’s office operates as a complicated medical service station. Security guards stand in most of the hallways, and students and visitors must pass through metal detectors and bag searches before entering the school.

But far from being a sad story, in many respects the positives of Wilbur Cross far outweigh the often-quoted negatives. Besides offering the most AP courses of any high school in New Haven, the school boasts an arsenal of impressive extracurriculars, from weekend tutoring, to athletics, to student committees. They have a state of the art wood shop, massive auto-mechanic facilities and a small restaurant-cafe operated by students, with a menu created and prepared by students. Their competitive ProStart culinary arts team is off to nationals in few weeks. According to principal Edith Johnson, their most recent drama production, “Hairspray,” sold out every night and is now up for a statewide drama award. This admissions season, graduating seniors have earned around five million dollars worth of scholarship money to colleges.

“The beauty of being so large is the options that you have,” said Johnson.

She continued, “I was once sitting with a student of ours on a panel, and I told her to prepare to answer the question, ‘Why is [Wilbur] Cross special?’ And she told me, ‘Oh, Mrs. Johnson, that’s easy. Cross is like America in a building: You have so many opportunities if you take advantage of them and work really hard.’ And that encapsulates who we are.”

Recently, the administrators and teachers have made the “taking advantage” part of this theory much easier. The school adopted a program that divides the school into four “academies.” “We are one school,” says Johnson. “But we realized that when everyone got in here it was kind of like each man for himself. You had to navigate and you had to know who was who, what was what. There were kids falling through the cracks.”

The academy system divides the school into four career-themed academies — the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, the Business and Fine Arts Academy, the Health and Culinary Sciences Academy and the Law and Public Service Academy. Each academy has its own interdisciplinary staff teaching English, math, science, social studies and elective courses. The academies facilitate smaller learning communities, thus allowing teachers and administrators greater familiarity with the school’s diverse student body.

“That’s the beauty of Cross,” said Johnson, stressing the various backgrounds and expectations among students. “I had a meeting with a student and a mom who transferred here, and that particular year, that student had been incarcerated for a year. He had then been [released], and moved here to start fresh. My next meeting was with two parents and their child who wanted to go to an Ivy League school and were making sure all the paperwork was in line.” Furthermore, because New Haven is an amnesty city, the high school’s student body hails from all over the world, from the Icelandic children of Yale academics to newly arrived Syrian and Afghani refugees.

Some students have been to jail, some hardly speak English and some will attend some of the nation’s most prestigious universities in the fall. Nevertheless, as Wilbur Cross English teacher Barbara Sasso states, “To me they’re just kids, they’re like my own children. And this is a hard job, but I wouldn’t want it over anything else in world.” As Sasso, Natalino and Johnson all assert, familiarity, caring and a deep love for the job despite its many difficulties not only help students, but also accentuate the sterling facets of Wilbur Cross.

Angelica Rodriguez and Karina Aviles are the best of friends. Both are 16, and both are juniors in the AP program at Wilbur Cross. Outside of class, Rodriguez captains the tennis team while Aviles works as a manager of the ProStart culinary management team after school.

Aviles wakes up every morning at 5:00 a.m., Rodriguez at 6:20 a.m. “But I fall back asleep all the time,” says Aviles, “and am sometimes late to school.” Rodriguez turns to her and says, with pursed lips, “What do you mean sometimes?”

Aviles’ mother works as dining hall staff in Davenport College and on most mornings — especially when Aviles does not fall back asleep — she drives her daughter to school. Rodriguez’s mother is a bus driver, so she rides with her. When they arrive at school, they get into one of two lines — one for boys, the other girls — to pass through the metal detector before entering the school. The line takes about 10 minutes, after every student clears the detector and a quick bag search.  

After they are through the metal detectors and bag checks, they go to breakfast. After about 20 minutes at breakfast, at 7:30 a.m., the first bell sounds. As soon as the bell silences, Mrs. Johnson’s booming voice floods the packed cafeteria: “Come on everyone, get to class! Mete a clase!” The students, Rodriguez and Aviles included, slowly rise from the tables and shuffle toward the hallway. And so the school day begins.

Both Rodriguez and Aviles are AP students. As they enter their first-period classes, the security guards take their posts in the hallways, teachers file into their respective rooms and administrators fly through hallways tracking tardy students and resolving any of the day’s litany of issues.

Like students at any school, both girls have teachers they love and teachers they dread. They have subjects they devour and classes they hide in, dreading participation. They have piles of homework, hours of extracurricular activities, mean SAT tutors, tedious family responsibilities and hopes, and worries and ambitions. And to them, no school exists that they would rather attend.

For both girls, education is everything and it begins with their mothers. Both had to drop out of high school: Aviles’ to take care of her child, Rodriguez’s to work and provide for her family. “They never got the opportunity,” Rodriguez said. “Our family was in serious trouble and my mom sacrificed her education for her family. She may have gone further in life if she hadn’t made that decision, but the family needs help. And because of that, she has put a huge emphasis on school.”

For Aviles, education was her outlet. She grew up reading. “It was the only priority set in front of me. My dad always told me, ‘Don’t worry about anything, don’t worry about anything else going on, just focus on school.”

For Aviles and Rodriguez, school represents not only the avenue through which they can achieve their goals, but also a means to fulfill what their family has worked to provide for them. At the age of 16, they are each supporting, in essence, their families’ dreams. They’re in it, in other words, for more than just themselves.

During their interview, I asked the girls if they would rather attend a private school. They looked to each other and said, almost simultaneously, “No.” For both girls, the people and the diversity of Wilbur Cross have come to not only define their high school experience, but also what they admire in the school. “I love being a part of a school with a bunch of different kids who are all going through the same thing,” says Rodriguez. “I would hate to have a sheltered school experience because I’ve learned [at Cross] that beauty is being able to look at someone who’s really different than you, and understand them because you’re all part of the same thing.”