“May I?” asked Richard Cheng, opening his hands to catch a small inflated ball. He stepped into the circle and showed the teacher how to speed up a morning greeting game. Just two years out of college, Cheng is one of the old-timers at one of the city’s new school-reform projects.
His exchange with a classroom teacher came during a daily training, as a nearly all-new teaching staff learns on the job how to reach a challenging population at Domus Academy, the city’s first “turnaround” school to be managed by an outside group.
Domus, a not-for-profit social services agency that runs two charter schools in Stamford, took over the former Urban Youth middle school this fall as part of a citywide school reform drive. The newly revamped school on Leeder Hill Road in Hamden serves 48 kids in grades six to eight who failed in traditional school settings because of behavioral or social problems.
The school in New Haven is based on a model Domus developed over 11 years at Trailblazer Academy, a Stamford middle school serving a similar population.
As a debate takes place nationwide about how to get the most talent into classrooms, some are placing their bets on smart, enthusiastic candidates who are new to the teaching field. Others argue that experienced teachers make the strongest candidates, especially in high-needs, urban classrooms.
Domus Academy has become an extreme example of the first strategy. The Stamford-based not-for-profit is banking on developing hardworking, idealistic recent college graduates into effective classroom teachers.
At the school, six of the nine classroom teachers are in their first year on the job, including five who are taking an alternate route to certification through Teach for America (TFA). A seventh has one year’s teaching experience. The eighth and ninth are veterans.
Students at Domus have a set of special needs: two-thirds are labeled as special education. Most are several grade levels behind their peers citywide. Others suffer from serious social or emotional problems or have gotten in trouble with the law. To prepare for the difficult situations that may come up, all Domus teachers are sent to a one-week summer training in crisis intervention run by Cornell University, said Domus Chief Education Officer Craig Baker. Before school started, new teachers got another week of training in Domus’s way of doing things—an approach that includes a nearly 10-hour school day and intensive contact with students’ families through family advocates and many calls home.
Now that school has started, new teachers are doing a fair amount of learning in the classroom.
Last week, one on-the-job lesson came during a morning warm-up session called the Circle of Power and Respect. Every morning, students break off into four mixed-age homerooms and discuss their feelings on a theme.
The theme of the day on Wednesday was “family.” Kids in a homeroom named Ambition filed down the hall to the classroom of science teacher Tyrone Mayorga.
Mayorga (pictured) is one of the five new TFA recruits at Domus Academy. TFA is a nationwide not-for-profit that this year placed 4,500 new teachers into classrooms on a mission to close the achievement gap. Through TFA, Mayorga bypassed the traditional certification and jumped into the classroom in September after a five-week TFA summer training course. To be accepted into TFA, recruits have to commit to two years in a urban or rural classroom. While teaching, they take classes on the side to earn a teaching certificate after one year.
Once an aspiring dentist, Mayorga was inspired to teach instead after graduating from Boston College in May. Click here to read more of his story.
On Wednesday, he stood at the door and explained a first morning exercise to six sleepy-eyed boys, all dressed in the requisite khaki pants and blue Domus shirts. He asked them to place themselves on a spectrum according to how important their family is to them. Students had to pick up a dry-erase marker, sign their names, shake the teacher’s hand, and file into the classroom.
One boy showed no interest in the task. He slipped past the teacher and found his way into the classroom, bypassing the morning drill.
Cheng, the school’s director of curriculum, stood by as backup. He took the kid aside for a pep talk.
“It’s homeroom. You know how to do it,” he urged, wrapping his arm around the kid’s shoulder. The student shuffled back to the line in the hallway. He hung back, then quietly obliged.
“A Heavy Dose of Modeling”
Inside the classroom, Cheng continued to step in for backup teaching at key moments.
Inside, Mayorga told his students to write a “reflection” on a Post-it note based on this prompt: “How important is your family to you?”
“What are we supposed to do?” asked one student, as the others set to writing.
Mayorga told him to write a reflection on the theme.
Cheng piped up: “For example?”
Mayorga complied: “For example, my family is very important to me because they can always be trusted.”
Students followed suit and shared their feelings on the topic.
The class then moved on to a ball toss. They were supposed to ask each other “how are you?” as they passed around a small soccer ball. The kids obliged, but the game crawled with large silences.
Cheng stepped in.
“May I?” Cheng asked Mayorga, asking with his hands for the ball. He caught it and took over the drill, this time picking up the speed. His voice was loud and assertive. “Watch your head,” he jokingly warned one student who wasn’t participating.
Mayorga repeated the drill, following his guidance.
Click on the play arrow at the top of this story to watch.
At the beginning of the drill, one kid complained of being hungry, and another said he hadn’t slept enough. By the end of the exercise, the first kid reported he was “ecstatic.”
Cheng took that as a good sign.
Though he just graduated from college in 2008, Cheng (pictured) is a relative veteran at the school and an expert on Domus’s method. Cheng comes to the supervisory job directly after finishing his own, two-year TFA stint at Domus’s middle school in Stamford. He deferred medical school to continue working with the not-for-profit group.
He said the homeroom sessions aim to gauge students’ moods, so teachers can identify who might need some extra attention to get on track that morning. The Circle of Power and Respect exercise also aims to “humanize” kids to each other, so that they see each other as people with lives outside of the classroom, he said.
“No matter how cheesy students think it is,” it usually works, Cheng said.
As teachers get the hang of the daily routine, Cheng has made an effort to help out teachers in morning homerooms.
“I’ve been making the rounds,” he said, “because we have mostly new teachers.”
Teachers are enthusiastic, and their intentions are “right on the mark,” but sometimes they need the skills to execute the lesson, Cheng said.
Throughout the week, Cheng serves as a main curricular support for the teachers. He meets with each of them privately for a half an hour each week. Teachers also attend one hour-long staff meeting and two hour-long teacher meetings throughout the week.
Cheng is one of three people who are giving hands-on help in the classroom at Domus, according to Chief Education Officer Baker. Principal Mike McGuire, a former math teacher and former director of both of Domus’ Stamford schools, is the second. Baker, who started out with Domus as a social science teacher in 1999, is the third.
“We’re giving a heavy dose of modeling,” Baker said.
First-time teachers in TFA also get extra help from an instructional coach provided by the program. The coach, a former teacher, observes the rookie in class and meets with him or her for one-on-one data analysis sessions. They assess student progress and talk about teaching strategies.
Baker explained the reason for hiring so many new faces.
When Domus took over Urban Youth, teachers had to reapply to keep working at the school. Four of nine teachers reapplied; none were selected. Baker said he ended up interviewing 25 teachers in total, and choosing six who were new to the profession.
The decisions had a lot to do with “mission fit,” Baker said.
Before talking about classroom pedagogy, teachers were asked in their interviews “what they believe about kids, what they believe about how students and families can be developed.” Were they willing to “work hard to develop relationships with the kids in and outside of classroom”?
Most important, said Baker, teachers had to embrace the fact that “we’re not going to send kids away.” Kids arrive at Domus after they fail in other environments, and sometimes after scrapes with the criminal justice system. Teachers need to “think creatively” in how to engage them, and keep them in the classroom despite significant challenges.
In the interviews, sometimes experienced teachers emerge as the strongest candidates, Baker said. “And sometimes it’s people who don’t have a lot of preconceived notions of what schooling should or shouldn’t be.”
Baker said his ideal candidate would have two to four years’ teaching experience, “so they don’t have the shock of walking into the classroom for the first time.”
In the case of New Haven’s new turnaround school, most of the successful applicants who fit Domus’ mission “ended up being newer teachers,” he said. “They were all really kind of gung-ho about the challenge.”
In the batch of new hires, one was a lifelong New Haven lawyer named Arnie Amore (pictured) who decided to become a social studies teacher. Others, like Mayorga, came straight from college. Amore and Mayorga were among eight TFA members who interviewed for Domus jobs; five were hired.
Why so many from TFA?
TFA recruits are already signing up for a “long and hard” year of “trying to serve the neediest students,” Baker pointed out. They’re already prepared for long days of teaching and studying for their certifications. They tend to have a ton of energy and enthusiasm. They don’t need much explanation before grasping Domus’ mission, he said.
Domus is in the third year of a relationship with TFA, according to Baker. In its three schools, eight of 35 teachers are in TFA. “We look at it as a really valuable avenue.”
Districtwide, there are now 30 first- and second-year TFA teachers working in city schools.
Critics question the program’s impact, because teachers start the job with little training and leave the profession just when they’re getting the hang of it. Many researchers have explored that concern.
A much-cited 2005 study by Linda Darling-Hammond found certified teachers “consistently produce stronger student achievement gains than do uncertified teachers,” including TFA recruits. If they get certified after two or three years, TFA recruits boost student achievement as well as other certified teachers, she found—“however, nearly all of them leave within three years.” TFA blasted the study’s methodology.
To the contrary, a 2004 study by Mathematica Policy Research found that TFA teachers did no worse than, and in some cases better than, their certified peers.
“TFA teachers had a positive impact on math achievement and no impact on reading achievement,” concluded authors Steven Glazerman, Daniel Mayer, and Paul Decker. That study used a randomized control trial, and is considered to be a neutral analysis of the controversial topic.
In addition, TFA points to three recent studies that show TFA teachers performed as well or better than traditionally certified teachers.
The city school district applied for $35 million from the same pot of money to train its teachers and administrators, but was not selected.
Will the TFA recruits stay on for more than two years in Domus Academy’s difficult environment, and choose teaching as a career?
It’s too soon to tell.
Of the five TFA teachers who completed their two-year stint at Domus last spring, only one—Cheng—stayed on for a third year, according to Baker.
“We would rather that somebody comes and spends their teaching career with us,” Baker said. But “because the work is so intense, we’re kind of like, if somebody is going to be committed and work their guts out for two years and be bought into what we do—we can live with it if they then leave.”
Brand new teachers come with challenges, Baker acknowledged.
“Any time you are starting something with people who are doing the career for the first time, there’s a steep learning curve,” he said.
“The drawback is that there’s a fair amount of on-the-job learning. Ideally, you want to hit the ground running more.” But, he argued, you have to look ahead to the entire, 200-day school year and think about the overall impact the teacher will have.
Baker said he sought to choose teachers who would not give up on their students, even at times when others might want to boot them from the classroom for being habitually disruptive.
Whether Domus Academy’s teachers are experienced or brand new, he said, “the thing that they had in common was that they were up for the challenge.”
Past Independent stories on Domus Academy:
• Domus Kids Learn New Math, Circa 2010
• Parents Get The Drill For An Experimental Year
• City To Double TFA Hires
• Two Failing Schools Aim High
• Domus Gets New Domus
• Challenges Await “Turnaround” School
• Mr. Paul Delivers The Pants
• “Turnaround” Work Begins At Urban Youth
• Schools Get Graded—& Shaken Up