Back-To-Basics Switcheroo Slams Honors Class

Melissa Bailey PhotoSecond in a series.

John Donahue’s Honors English 4 was on a roll, tackling “Waiting for Icarus” by Muriel Rukeyser and other college-level poems. Then the class had to stop and switch to a strictly scripted version of Gateway Community College’s remedial English class.

When the new syllabus took effect, the class’s collective heart sank. The thought-provoking poems were replaced by “tedious” basics.

What’s a teacher to do? What’s a student to do?

That was the dilemma facing Donahue’s honors class at Hill Regional Career High School. It was an example of the broad range of dilemmas facing New Haven public-school students and educators as they brace for a new state law, Public Act 12-40, which shifts the burden of remedial education from state colleges and universities to high schools. Because of the law, city kids graduating this spring will not be able to take remedial classes at Gateway Community College—and thus may not be able to enroll at all, because of all the catching up they need to do.

(Click here for a related story on the law and its impact on math class.)

For students in Donahue’s class, the law prompted an unintended consequence: Because of scheduling challenges, honors students who scored well on their SATs found themselves thrown into a back-to-basics catch-up class along with other students who were identified as needing extra help.

Donahue’s students were among those who faced a surprise after Christmas break: They would be placed into a new “refresher course” in the spring of their senior year to get them ready for college. Based on students’ SAT scores, the New Haven public schools this spring put 474 high-school seniors into new refresher math and English classes that mimic remedial Gateway courses. Students will have to score a C or higher in the classes—or else take a special “boot camp” this summer—to be able to enroll in Gateway this fall.

At Career High, 75 of 158 seniors found out in January that they had to take refresher courses in math or English.

For Donahue’s class, the last-minute change means that the entire honors English 4 class—including the half identified as needing extra help based on having scored lower than a 410 on their reading or writing SAT components, as well as those who performed well enough to get into UConn and private colleges—changed to a version of Gateway’s remedial English classes.

Donahue, who has degrees from Harvard and Columbia’s Teachers College, has been working at Career for 10 years. Students who filed into his class on a recent morning gave rave reviews of his Honors English 4 class, which they took in the fall.

“We read interesting poems,” said Maria Rosemond.

“Poems that you really had to think about,” added Alyssa Jennette.

Maria got up from her seat, went over to a hanging file, and pulled out the syllabus from the past semester. She rattled off some of her favorite poems, including, “Acquainted with the Night” by Robert Frost and “Waiting for Icarus” by Muriel Rukeyser.

Now, instead of those poems, they are reading texts such as “TV For Tots: Not What You Remember,” by Jonathan V. Last.

That was the essay Donahue handed out in preparation for a class last week. The essay came from the Blair Reader, one of two new textbooks for the class. Donahue had to assign it because it was one of three mandatory readings for Weeks 5 and 6 of the class. The readings were set in a syllabus that Gateway came up with in collaboration with the New Haven public schools. The syllabus mirrors that of Gateway’s English 043 and 063 classes. Students who get a C or higher will automatically place out of remedial education at Gateway, the most popular destination for graduates of the New Haven school district. For some students, passing the class may mean the difference between being able to go to college or not.

Donahue had a tough crowd to sell on the new course.

“Why am I taking this?” asked Yasmina Hamdaoui (pictured). She said she misses the challenge of Donahue’s fall-semester class.

“I feel like it’s less work,” she said. She said the Gateway course called for “fill-in-the-blanks stuff you’ll get in middle school.” The material feels like “the same thing over and over again,” she said.

“I thought that was unfair” to be placed in the Gateway-aligned class, “because a lot of people aren’t going to Gateway.”

Being put in the class “brings people down mentally,” about “how they think of themselves,” she objected.

The school had to convert Donahue’s two honors English classes to the new syllabus because of a scheduling problem, said Career High Principal Madeline Negron. She didn’t find out until December that the school needed to offer the English 043 class. The students who needed the intervention were dispersed between honors and regular-level English, she said. In math, the school was able to pull students out of 11 different math classes into a new pre-algebra class. But English teachers didn’t have the same capacity to create new classes. So the school converted its English 4 classes to follow Gateway’s guidelines. About half of the students, those with SAT scores below 410 in reading or writing, will be taking it for credit at Gateway; the rest will take it only for high-school credit.

Students spent the first part of last week’s class reading Last’s TV For Tots essay, which argues that cartoons have become too “feminized.”

Alyssa, who is taking the course for Gateway credit, said she found the essay a little “tedious.”

“I was doing this freshman year,” said Maria of the coursework.

Unlike with the poetry last semester, which was ripe for close analysis, with this essay, Alyssa said, “There’s nothing to talk about.”

Donahue’s challenge was to help students find something to talk about as the entered a “fishbowl”-style conversation, where one circle of students sits in the middle of the class and has a discussion while the others listen in from the perimeter.

Donahue’s task turned out not to be too hard: Once they got going, the students had lots to say.

Students began by discussing the author’s main argument, that TV shows don’t have enough macho male characters. Specifically, the author called for cartoons to have characters such as a man who can fix a car, and someone like four-star U.S. Army General David Petraeus.

“It sounded like he wanted to see violence,” to “see men in a certain role,” said student Evangelina Briones.

Why would you need a man like Petraeus in a cartoon? Donahue asked.

Manny Ford said you don’t. In Peanuts, for example, “there was no adult figure,” yet the show still taught “moral lessons” in every episode.

Students then debated whether students are absorbing moral lessons, or educational lessons, when they watch cartoons.

There are some things kids can’t learn from cartoons, offered Angelo DelVecchio: “If you want kids to be playing outside,” you “can’t teach them that” on TV.

Donahue ended the conversation after 15 minutes and sent his students writing—another requirement of the Gateway-aligned class. Students had to write a “reaction paper” to the essay.

Donahue was asked about students’ critique that the texts are not challenging enough.

“I’m glad” they want the rigor, he said.

He said he is upholding the same routines—the fishbowl discussion, journal-writing during every class—as in his English 4 class. And he’s using the same standards to grade students’ writing. He said he can still challenge students with the syllabus he’s been given. “There’s a way to be rigorous with this material.” He said he plans to supplement the Gateway readings with Ophelia scenes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet—a good jumping-off point for discussions of gender and relationships.

The Gateway course starts with the very basics of writing an essay. Students start with just one paragraph and build on that until they are writing a full essay. Donahue said while his honors students are beyond those basics, the students in his non-honors class, who are also taking the same refresher course, “could use the structure” and close attention to essay-writing.

Writing argument is “really hard,” he said.

Donahue said the roll-out of the refresher English classes has been “awkward,” because “it makes it look like a punishment when it’s not. It’s actually an opportunity” to brush up on key skills before college.

Manny (pictured), the most vocal participant in the class discussion, said he’s enjoying the course. He found out in January that he had to switch his math and English classes this spring so that he can get into Gateway this fall.

“It was a lot of trouble at first” to change his schedule around, he said. He questioned the district’s decision to wait until spring semester to prepare kids for the new law.

“It could have been earlier,” he said. “We have four to five months left of school.”

“It’s pressure to try to pass.”

Kaira Fernandez (pictured at the top of this story), plans to attend Western Connecticut State University next year. She said she is enjoying Donahue’s class even with the last-minute change of syllabus.

“You’re always working,” she said, “so the time just goes by.”

Previous story:

12th Graders Head Back To Middle School Math

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posted by: Jill_the_Pill on March 6, 2014  9:54am

This is unfair.  The non-remedial students will be cheated of a whole semester learning the more subtle analysis and complex writing skills they will need at UConn or private colleges.  Why bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator?

posted by: connecticutcontrarian on March 6, 2014  11:51am

This is a ridiculous law that will have deleterious consequences for students across the state. Community colleges SHOULD offer remedial courses as they are often a prep program for students who want to transition to 4 year colleges. They are also better situated to offer individualized sections where students who need them can enroll rather than forcing more successful students to sit through more standardized dribble.

Education really isn’t that difficult. It’s out of politicians who make it that way

posted by: Jeff Klaus on March 6, 2014  4:11pm

Gateway should continue to offer the remedial courses to students who need them. 

But Gateway should pay for the program by charging the sending districts for the cost of the students who need remediation. 

Right now taxpayers are paying twice to provide basic education for a large number of students.  The cost is $17K+ per student for each year a student attends NHPS - and then some number for the same student to re-learn it at Gateway. 

Until there is some accountability in the system we won’t see real improvement.

posted by: NewHavenPublic on March 6, 2014  10:28pm

12 years of punishments from “No Child Left Behind” failed to raise “accountability”. The “Smarter Balanced” tests for Common Core will likewise fail.


“Accountability” is not the issue and “New Haven Public Schools” is not “the problem.”

Most teachers in the New Haven school system feel deeply accountable to creating space where children can realize their personal best.  More than accountability, teachers own the RESPONSIBILITY for working with children to help them realize themselves as learners and active members of our democracy.

We became a great country because of our public school system.  We are insane to take ANY school advice from the financial industry.  Their greed nearly destroyed our economy in 2008.  Where is their responsibility to our democracy?

Stop beating up on schools and teachers.  We do not make schools better for children by punishing adults.

We should know by now that this approach is very wrong. 

Great school systems celebrate children and learning. 

Can we try that while protecting our public schools from the privateers?

posted by: Champ358 on March 6, 2014  11:32pm

What would the NHPS do if Gateway was not offering these interventions ahead of the next entry class? Why are such a large portion of the New haven graduating class in danger of not being able to test into college 101 classes in Math and English? Between Malloy and Pryor and other “educators” is there anyone who has any experience in education?

And if students are not ready for 101 classes by the time they leave high school, why not offer remedial classes in community colleges? Isn’t that a proper use of community colleges? And what about returning GIs or adults retraining for a career change or reentry who have been outgo of the classroom for many years and cannot place into 101? Dropping remedial classes is a lose/lose situation.

posted by: Westville voter on March 7, 2014  11:53am

Why are students who need remedial help in honors classes in the first place? This hurts everyone. The students who need extra help are unprepared and the students who don’t need extra help are held back waiting for their less-prepared peers to catch up. Another example of systematic failure at NHPS. Something this basic should have been addressed by now. School reform appears to be a sham.

posted by: Theodora on March 7, 2014  12:37pm

This is simply another way that NHPS is failing families and students. The teachers constantly point a big finger of blame at anyone other than themselves, yet even its best students are not being prepared to hit the ground running at the next level.

Jeff Klaus has it exactly right, Gateway should be there to do the job NHPS didn’t. And NHPS should pay for it.

posted by: Theodora on March 7, 2014  1:05pm

NewHavenPublic… Are you suggesting that New Haven Public schools were performing splendidly before 2000? I think you lack evidence there.

posted by: NewHavenPublic on March 7, 2014  2:41pm

@Theodora - There is almost always room for improvement in every “system” we humans create.  I honestly don’t believe most teachers and school administrators are shirking their responsibilities.  To the contrary, I have first hand experience that suggests they relentlessly go above and beyond to help kids rise.

Our discussion should be about providing our schools and needy families with the supports and resources that DIRECTLY benefit them.  The current NHPS administration seems to have a laser-like focus on dismantling urban school communities.

posted by: John Donahue on March 7, 2014  3:54pm

I would like to discuss a couple points in defense of my bright, hardworking students. First, scoring lower than 410 on the Reading section of the SAT is not a very robust indicator of a student’s skills in an English class. When I received the list of students with low scores, I was surprised because so many of them were in fact performing well in my class.

Second, this law feels like an odd hiccup in the middle of what I have seen as the steady rise in the academic expectations for all New Haven high school seniors over the past decade. Since I began teaching here, I have seen the district move from the low of just wanting students to pass the CAPT before they graduate to our current efforts to have every high school senior succeed with real college level curriculum.

We are not all the way there, but we are working hard on some complex problems.

posted by: Theodora on March 7, 2014  5:19pm

NewHavenPublic… I recognize the slogan you are using, but how does this story indicate that you are writing with any sincerity or within reality?

I also don’t understand how two people from the district commenting on here can say something in direct opposition. One suggests that schools are struggling because of policy since 2000 while the other suggests that the district is making great strides in the last decade.

Which is it? Are kids rising at NHPS or falling? How has performance at the next level been for these students in the last 10 years, 5 years, 20 years? Just saying it doesn’t make it so.

posted by: NewHavenPublic on March 7, 2014  6:00pm

@Theodora - The U.S. economy has been radically transformed in the past few decades.  Wealth has been concentrated at the top and some of these plutocrats have decided to attack our public schools and destroy teacher unions.  Rupert Murdoch calls our public schools a “500 billion dollar opportunity”

John Donahue and I are in complete agreement.

Standardized tests do not define our children.

Teachers and their administrators work really hard with the children they have in front of them.

Teachers care deeply about their children and work tirelessly to help them rise.

Graduation rates, SAT scores and IQ continue to rise in our country.

Children are not test scores.

Children hate standardized tests because they know they are not real and they are frequently used to label them “failures” and stigmatize their schools.

The NAEP is all we need to inform education policy.  We don’t need SBAC, but we will waste our time and money - and snuff urban school communities in the process?

Stop the assault on public schools.  You might make a buck, but WE lose our voice when Achievement First takes over.

posted by: Theodora on March 7, 2014  7:01pm


Two issues…
1. Do a Google search to find out how much money your superintendent has in the bank. When you criticize the wealthy, beware who that includes.
2. Do a performance check through the state’s education website on the performance of students from Achievement First vs. those from the district.

Sounds like you are looking to maintain a system that has delivered generational harm to specific neighborhoods in this city.

posted by: NewHavenPublic on March 8, 2014  4:57pm

@Theodora – I am very concerned about the inappropriate influence the very rich have on policy decisions in the New Haven Public schools.  Several of the strategies we are seeing (such as plans to reduce staff and increase class size in middle and high school) will reduce the quality of education provided for our neediest children.  So much of what is being foisted on New Haven is directly from the Bill Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli Broad Foundation.

To your second issue, it has been well established why some charter schools (such as Achievement First) perform better than public schools.  Here is a recent example

I will not respond to your nasty dig.

Many New Haven children are poor, stressed and marginalized.  All of our children need schools that to attend to social, emotional and ethical development.  They deserve opportunities to discover the joy of learning through appropriate challenge.  Interesting schools for ALL children are not created by a relentless focus on test scores and a drive toward standardization.  Each child brings different strengths to school.  It is the work of professional teachers to celebrate individual strengths – including the non-cognitive.  Simultaneously, teachers meet children where they are and help them meet the specific expectations of the community.

Dr. James Comer’s School Development Program has been used with great success in urban schools.  It must be revitalized where it was born, here in New Haven.  Dr. Comer has the data to back up the effectiveness of the program.

Public schools deserve our support.  The unfolding scandal to devalue, defund and then privatize yet more New Haven schools does not have to happen.

posted by: Josiah Brown on March 9, 2014  12:35pm

John Donahue prepared a curriculum unit, “What Is Latino? Using Latino Writers to Help Define an Emerging American Identity”:

He developed this unit as a Fellow in a Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute seminar on “Latino Cultures and Communities” led by Stephen Pitti, Professor of History and American Studies: