NH Register Profiles Domus Academy

THE WAY FORWARD: Nonprofit agency changes how troubled New Haven students are educated
 
By Abbe Smith, Register Staff
 
Courtesy of the New Haven Register
 
Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing series about New Haven’s school reform efforts.

HAMDEN — Domus Academy does not exist inside one of New Haven’s recently built museum-like schools and there are no flowery bulletin boards or magnet themes here.
 

Domus Academy is the reincarnation of the former Urban Youth Center, a transitional school for troubled and at-risk students. The school runs out of swing space on Leeder Hill Road in Hamden and has 35 students in grades 6-8.
 

“Our mission is to re-engage students, disenfranchised students who had struggles,” said Domus principal Michael McGuire. “Our mission is to change their life trajectory.”
 

When kids find their way to Domus, often it’s because they were on a rough path and needed a new strategy to go in a positive direction. As one Domus student put it, “This is a real school.”
 

When Urban Youth was tapped more than a year ago to be one of the district’s pilot turnaround schools as part of the massive school reform initiative, the task of transforming the low-performing school seemed near impossible.
 

So drastic steps were taken. The district brought in Domus, a Stamford-based charter nonprofit agency, to manage Urban Youth and boost student performance. Domus came in and hired a new staff, largely made up of Teach for America teachers, to take on the reform challenge. The Domus staff had to adhere to district curriculum standards, but at the same time address turnaround requirements and maintain control over a population of at-risk students.
 

In the 2007-2008 school year, the most recent for which data is available on the state Department of Education website, only 4.8 percent of eighth-graders at Urban Youth scored at a proficient level on the mathematics portion of the Connecticut Mastery Test, compared to 62.1 percent district-wide, and 81.2 percent across the state. Only 10 percent of eight-graders were proficient in reading on the 2005-2006 CMT, according to the most recent available data. Some of the students come in testing at a first or second grade reading level.
 

CMT scores for this year won’t be released until July, and even then, school officials say it is not likely the district will see huge boosts from just one year of intensive school reform. Still, Richard Cheng, director of curriculum and instruction for Domus, said mid-year data shows the students achieved 1.2 years of growth in reading and 1.3 years of growth in math in just six months. He said those percentages probably don’t represent actual growth, but are the result of students taking tests more seriously. Another accomplishment this year: Every student took the CMTs.
 

For many of the students, the transition to Domus Academy was a stark change from the kind of classroom experience to which they were accustomed. The school day is longer than average, running from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Teachers eat breakfast and lunch with the students and are encouraged to build personal relationships. A teacher or student advocate will often pick a student up for school and stop in the home for coffee and a conversation with a parent or guardian. If a student has a doctor’s appointment or a court date, a teacher or advocate might give him a lift. The goal is to give students a support system.
 

“Oh my God, it’s a big difference, a very big difference,” said 15-year-old Rashid Whitley.
 
Last year, Rashid attended Urban Youth. If behavior problems get in the way of a student’s learning or his classmates’ experience, Urban Youth was the place for him. For Rashid, the problem was not his grades.
 

“It’s my anger. I needed to work on that,” he said.
 

Rashid said he has come a long way in one year and he is proud of the progress he has made. He explained that having teachers respect you shows that they care about you.
 

“It makes me think more about my future. I really didn’t think about my future before,” he said.
 

One major incentive that has Rashid and others pondering college is a pilot program for eighth-graders at Domus called “Pay to Learn.” While the program is still in its infancy, it looks something like this: When students behave, do well on a test or accomplish a goal, the school deposits a small amount of money into an account set aside for each individual student. That account has the ability to grow to $1,600 over the course of the year. The money is held in that account until the student gets to high school. When a student presents a high school report card with As and Bs, he or she gets a check from Domus for a portion of the money.
 

“It’s not instant gratification,” Cheng said.
 

The idea is to teach kids about the skills that are required to hold down a steady job someday. The program is completely funded by Domus.
 

There is a different tone at Domus. At more traditional schools in the district, teachers get a quiet classroom by giving a stern look or holding two fingers up. A student that throws a fit in the classroom often is sent to the principal’s office. Teachers at Domus employ a different strategy.
 

“In the past, a student would yell and curse and get kicked out and not end up doing their work,” Cheng said. At Domus, teacher and adults might wait silently for the student to stop yelling and then keep going with the lesson.
 

“The key is to not get fazed. Stay calm,” Cheng said.
 

Even with a teaching staff that has an average age of only 23, the students learn to respect adults, Cheng said.
 

New Haven Director of Instruction Damaris Rau said Domus spends a lot of time teaching the students life skills. She said she is impressed with the progress already being made.
 

“When I come in they say, ‘Hello,’ and shake my hand,” Rau said.
 

Student goals are different at Domus from the rest of the district. The school aims to have all of its eight-graders graduate from high school and a significant portion go to college or a trade school. Progress is measured by test scores, but also by suspension numbers, attendance and other factors.
 
 
Each school day starts out with a morning meeting that includes the Pledge of Allegiance, the Domus Pledge and “shout-outs” to recognize student achievement.
 

“We try to start every day out with a positive message,” McGuire said. “We reward positive outcomes and it’s real contagious.”
 

Each day also includes core classes, time for silent reading and, on most days, a non-academic activity like a cooking lesson or African drumming session.
 

Seventh grader Dajon Bowen came to Domus after attending Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School, where he got in trouble for fighting and cursing at teaches. He said Betsy Ross was “more fun,” but concedes that teachers at Domus push him work with him more.
 

“These teachers will give you a chance,” he said. “They’ll debate with you, but at the end of the day, they care.”
 

Brandon Lanzofano, an eight grader, tucked in his shirt as he walked over to a reporter for an interview. He and Dajon both wear black Domus polo shirts, indicating they are on the honor roll. Brandon said he didn’t want to come to Domus but was forced to by his mom and grandmother. Now he is glad he came.
 

“It shows I can turn myself around,” he said.
 

McGuire said Brandon has transformed himself.
 

“He’s done an unbelievable job,” he said.
 

Cheng said the students are definitely making progress, but they have a long way to go.
 

He tells them: “You’re not at Harvard yet, but it’s a step in the right direction.”