This is how New Haven is educating a high school freshman who got expelled: It sent her to class for two hours, then sent her home with a one-page worksheet and word-search puzzle in which students circle vocabulary words in a grid of letters.
That was the school day recently for Francesca Cruz (pictured), a former High School in the Community student now serving a 180-day expulsion for getting into a fight in the school cafeteria.
Cruz is one of 40 students participating in the city’s “homebound” program, which offers two hours of daily instruction for students who have been expelled.
Superintendent Garth Harries said he is planning to review the program.
“In the context of trying to prioritize our collective work for disengaged youth, I think we need to be looking at our homebound program,” he said. “Intuitively it doesn’t make sense that students who by their action are telling us that they’re most in need of something are only getting two hours of instruction per day.”
The practice of offering expelled kids just two hours of instruction per day—the minimum required by state law—is similar in New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford, the state’s three largest cities.
Harries said he is considering expanding the program to serve those kids beyond just two hours per day. Any attempt at expansion would take place against the backdrop of strained finances: The school district will soon discuss cuts for next school year, because the budget Mayor Toni Harp proposed would leave the school system with a $3.8 million hole for the budget year that begins July 1. At the same time, the recent homicides of two teenaged boys—one of whom attended New Haven public schools—has put pressure on the city to do more to prevent “disengaged” students from becoming the next victims of violent crime.
The homebound program drew three students to Metropolitan Business Academy one recent afternoon. The mainstream students who attend the Water Street magnet school had already finished for the day when Francesca and two other students, Lauriza and Kiara Martinez, waited in the cafeteria for homebound instruction to begin. All three got expelled from high school this year for fighting. They are banned from all school property except for their homebound site.
At Metro, homebound students arrive through a separate entrance to keep them away from other kids, according to Steve Mikolike, one of two homebound instructors there. Mikolike awaited his students in the school cafeteria. Of six assigned to that site, three showed up. At 2:40, Francesca headed upstairs in zebra-print slippers. She entered a classroom on the third floor, where Mikolike’s co-teacher, Derek Stephenson, kicked off the lesson.
Stephenson (pictured) and Mikolike, who have co-taught homebound in the same classroom for eight years, are both certified special education teachers who work in alternative city high schools during the day. After their regular duties at Riverside Academy and Dixwell New Lights High School, they tag-team a two-hour session with students from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday to Friday. In effort to create order in the class, students who show up after 2:45 p.m. are turned away, Mikolike said.
Metro is one of five sites around the city that serve as homebound sites, according to J. Peter Wilson, the special education teacher who oversees the program. (The other sites are: Riverside Academy, Truman School, King/Robinson School, and the West Rock Community Center on Valley Street.) Each class is capped at 10 students. Students range from grade 5 to 12; middle-schoolers and high-schoolers are separated.
Students who arrive at the sites have been kicked out of school for anywhere between 11 and 180 days. Francesca, who lives in Fair Haven Heights, said she ended up in homebound in January after getting in trouble at High School in the Community, a small magnet school just a block away from Metro. Francesca said there is a lot of “drama” at the school and she got “dragged into it.”
When she showed up at homebound, she was apprehensive. She asked how many students would be in the group. She was relieved to find out there were only six. That meant fewer distractions, more of a chance to focus on her work.
On a recent afternoon, that work was a lesson on “workplace appropriateness.” First, students reviewed some vocabulary words on the board, such as “insubordination,” “incentives” and “termination.”
Then Stephenson asked students what kind of jobs are available these days.
“Dunkin’ [Donuts],” offered Francesca.
“Doctor.” “Military,” came other student suggestions.
Students watched a video on emerging jobs of 2014, including in the tech and health industries.
Lauriza Martinez announced she would like to be a police officer (a job not featured in the video).
Students took turns reading aloud a passage about how to act appropriately at work: “Use only the allotted time for lunch.” Look someone in the eye when you shake their hand. “Try your best to do your work.”
Stephenson related the lessons to his own life, and to those of the students: Lauriza works at Macy’s. Her sister Kiara works at Wendy’s. Francesca had lined up a job interview at McDonald’s the next day.
Lauriza and Kiara, who are 17 and 18, moved here from the Dominican Republic five years ago and are learning English as a second language. They would both be seniors at Wilbur Cross High School if they hadn’t been kicked out.
Kiara, who motioned that her throat hurt, stayed nearly silent through the day’s lesson. She was still warming up to the idea of participating in class. Lauriza, meanwhile, volunteered to read the passages aloud.
“Excellent reading,” Stephenson told her. “Your fluency is coming along.”
At other times, Lauriza spoke in Spanish to translate questions for her sister or to make sideline remarks.
After reading aloud the passage, students answered multiple-choice questions to check their comprehension. Then came a few minutes of math: Mikolike jumped in with two word problems, which put pre-algebra skills to test in a real-life setting.
“Lauriza receives $8.75/ hour,” the problem began. “Her employee handbook tells her she’ll get $14.50 for overtime. Her first week, she worked 5 8-hour shifts and 3 hours of overtime. How much did she earn?”
Students called out answers to each step as Mikolike worked through the problem on the board.
The two-hour class is technically four classes in one: math, science, English and social studies. Mikolike is in charge of the first two, Stephenson the last two. The teachers design the curriculum for the class. If students do well, they will earn a quarter-credit per subject per academic quarter. That adds up to one credit per academic quarter.
That means during their expulsion, kids who are expelled typically fall farther behind those who are mainstreamed: Students in mainstream high schools can get seven credits per year, compared to only four per year in the homebound program.
Lauriza and her sister are both hoping to accumulate enough credits to be able to graduate in May. To do that, they’ll need to supplement their coursework. They can earn some credit for working a job and for doing community service. They may be able to start Odysseyware, an online credit recovery program that some high schools have been trying out. The program is not currently offered to homebound students, but it may be soon, according to Wilson. Most likely, they’ll have to go to summer school to catch up.
The classes they’re taking at the homebound site are based on seat time. That means students can’t get credits faster by doing extra work, as they can at other schools. They do the amount of work that is assigned to them. On Thursday, class wrapped up at 4:20 p.m.
Stephenson sent students home with a one-page worksheet that requested one-line answers about key ideas about workplace appropriateness. Students had to answer questions such as, “What’s the first thing to do when you’re introduced to someone at work?”
He also handed out a word search. The word search listed vocabulary words from the lesson, such as “career,” “reliable” and “qualification.” It asked students to find and circle those words in a grid of letters—an exercise more often found in elementary or middle school.
Francesca said she thought the sheet was part of her homework. Asked for clarification, Stephenson said the real homework on which students would be graded was the worksheet from the day’s lesson. The word search was “supposed to be an in-class assignment,” in case some students finished an exercise before others and had a few extra moments. It was “something fun at the end [of the lesson] that is not as intense,” and reviews the vocabulary learned that day. The word search was “not necessarily homework,” he said. “I just sent that home. Sometimes students like stuff like that.”
“That was a fun thing relevant to this specific activity,” he said of the word search. “It is not every day that we do a word search after the activity.” He said he often turns on the overhead projector to show authentic materials from the Web about whatever the class is learning.
For homework, Lauriza also received a page of math problems that she was catching up on.
Stephenson said besides the academic content of the work, “just the whole process of taking home, doing it and bringing it back” is very important for kids who have been removed from a traditional school setting and may be disengaged with school.
A huge part of the homebound program, Stephenson said, is establishing relationships with kids, showing kids you believe in them, and getting them re-established in school. Francesca was quiet and skeptical when she arrived at the program in January, he said.
“She has blossomed like a spring flower,” he said.
“Boys are a little more challenging,” he noted. “A lot of guys don’t buy into it.”
By the time students arrive at the homebound program, they have already gone through an expulsion hearing and endured their family’s reaction to what they have done, he noted.
“We know what they’ve been through. They’ve been through the ringer,” he said. Readjusting to school, and caring about it again, can be difficult, he said.
Francesca said she is enjoying the program more than her traditional high school.
“I wish I could stay here to get my education,” she said. She started high school in an experimental year at High School in the Community, which launched an ambitious experiment to end social promotion and ensure kids had mastered material before advancing through high school. At the end of the first year, Francesca found out neither she nor any of the 44 first-time freshmen had enough credits to become sophomores—a fact that Francesca found frustrating.
Now she’s hoping to get back on track and finish high school in four years. She said she enjoys the homebound program: The work is “easier” and she can focus better.
“I’m good, I’m happy,” she said.
Stephenson said he is rooting for the Martinez sisters to get enough credits to finish high school this year: “There’s nothing I want more than for them to graduate.”
Superintendent Harries has been talking publicly about homebound, a previously under-the-radar program, since he became superintendent last July. He has argued that students who get expelled are among the most vulnerable in the system, and should receive more help, not less.
Harries said the city offers two hours per day because that is the minimum required by state law.
Connecticut’s two other major cities offer variations on New Haven’s homebound program, all roughly within the same parameters.
In Hartford, expelled students get instruction for for 2 1/2 hours per day, according to Tina Jeter, director of the “New Visions Program,” Hartford’s version of homebound. Students meet with tutors, not certified teachers. Unlike in New Haven, the curriculum is tied to the mainstream schools: Students remain enrolled in classes from their sending schools. Mainstream teachers send work through paper or email, and tutors help the kids work through it. Teachers are responsible for assigning and grading the work. All students—49 kids, from grades 6 to 12—meet together at the same site, Jeter said. Students are eligible to get credit as though they were enrolled in the class inside their sending school, she said. Some schools also offer software programs designed for kids to recover HS credit, she added.
New Haven used to put all of its homebound students in the same site, recalled Wilson, who has worked with New Haven public schools since 1976. He said about 27 years ago, the district split up the site into various locations in different neighborhoods because kids were afraid of getting hurt if they crossed into the territory of neighborhoods in which they did not live.
Bridgeport sends all of its expelled students to a two-hour afternoon session at a high school called PRIDE Alternative School, according to information provided by the Office of Student Support Services. Students meet with certified teachers and have access to a guidance counselor, special ed teacher, and a social worker. The curriculum is set by PRIDE. About 40 kids are enrolled in the program right now.
Harries said he wants to review New Haven’s program to ensure that kids have the opportunity for academic rigor and personal development that they need.
“I want to work with teachers, parents and students to assess what’s happening now and how to strengthen it,” he said in a recent interview.
JoAnne Wilcox, who is heading up a new parent taskforce examining school discipline, called for shutting down New Haven’s homebound program and ending a “zero tolerance” approach to discipline, which has escalated the number of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and school-related arrests nationally. She has been calling for a shift to a “restorative justice” approach, which focuses on repairing the harm that was done instead of simply issuing punishments.
Some schools, such as New Haven Academy and High School in the Community, have used “restorative justice” approaches, where students help find resolutions to in-school disputes.
Harries said he supports the restorative justice approach, and has begun to spread its use to more schools: He announced last week plans to create a “restorative justice” room at Lincoln-Bassett School, where a recent state audit cited major problems with student behavior.
In reviewing the homebound program, Harries said he first wants to look at how kids end up there.
Here’s how the process works, according to Wilson: When a school orders a student to be kicked out for over 10 days, that triggers an expulsion hearing. Common offenses are fighting in school and getting arrested in the community for drugs or gun violence. Students must report to the school board headquarters at 54 Meadow St. and come before one of three hearing officers appointed by the school board: Jimmy Jones, Mike Mackniak and Jim Courtney, a former city principal. Those officers determine a student’s punishment.
Students who get expelled are all sent to homebound.
“My sense is within the homebound population, there are some pretty different circumstances,” Harries said. Some kids “have done something serious but silly.” Some have “ongoing behavior issues,” low-level behavior that escalates over time. Others are “kids who are hardcore checked out of school and don’t see a place for themselves” in the school system.
“I want to make sure that the program that we’re delivering is meeting the needs” of all students in all three categories, Harries said.
Harries (pictured) said at the program’s inception, it was “progressive” to be offering any instruction at all to kids who were kicked out of school. Now he said it’s time for the next chapter of the program.
He said he’d like to not only at how kids get into homebound, but how they might be able to get out. The current system works like a prison sentence with no chance of early release: Kids are sentenced to a certain number of days in homebound. They cannot exit early for good behavior, according to Harries.
Harries said there are three main theoretical foundations for punishment: retribution, societal protection and rehabilitation. (People often add a fourth, deterrence.)
“It’s pretty clear to me that in the context of the school system, we want to be heavily prioritizing the third,” rehabilitation, Harries said. “The sooner we get [students] back into a mainstream environment, the better.”
To rehabilitate kids faster, they may need more adult attention—which would cost money, Harries noted. He said he can foresee a public discussion about the best use of scarce resources. Some would argue the school system should “focus the resources on the kids who are taking advantage of it,” those who aren’t misbehaving and breaking rules.
“Our obligation is to serve all kids,” Harries said. The question will be, “how do we prioritize resources.”
Stephenson said he would love to see more resources channeled towards homebound kids.
“They have a lot of time on their hands,” he said. “They could use an extension” of the current class offerings—perhaps some vocational training, he suggested.
Harries said he aims to review the academic rigor of the program.
“We need to be sure that we’re providing these kids an experience that has the best chance of putting them on the track to success,” he said.
“The teachers are trying to do the best they can in a difficult situation,” and they are faced with students who “probably have major academic gaps.”
One concern, he said, is that they might go back to mainstream environment “and may not have the skills that they need to go on and be successful.”
Teachers union President Dave Cicarella, who taught homebound for eight years, said he supports strengthening the rigor of the program and expanding it beyond two hours per day.
“We need to do more for those kids,” he said.