Charter Experiment Banks On Rookies

“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.

Melissa Bailey PhotoMayorga (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.

Melissa Bailey File PhotoThough 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.

“Mission Fit”

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.”

Melissa Bailey File PhotoIn 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.

National Support

President Obama has come down on TFA’s side, recently awarding it a major $50 million grant to increase its ranks by 80 percent in the next four years.

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

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on October 26, 2010  3:49pm

My question is according to what king john said and that was if a school fails,Then it becomes a charter school.So what happens if this school fails bacuse it is already a charter school.Were to the students go back to.

P.S. Why is that student in the picture siting with his backpack on his back in the chair.

posted by: Beth W. on October 26, 2010  3:51pm

It seems like no one’s going to change his mind: either you think TFA is great or you think they’re horrible. But in this case, with students so terribly far behind and disadvantaged, having a group of dedicated teachers willing to work their butts off for kids who need far more support than the average student, it’s a no-brainer. These kids didn’t do well in other schools—let’s not debate but instead give them teachers who choose this environment and this challenge and give 150% for these kids. They need every chance at success!

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on October 26, 2010  3:51pm

The entire national reform effort of education is based on a false premise, which is that schooling is a fundamental tool in generating social stability. In reality, schools are a social construct that result from economic stability, in the case of economies that are based on a money-system, like ours.
The idea that schooling can successfully negate a combination of other forces like economics, blight, crime and social degradation for the masses will only lead us more quickly to national bankruptcy without preparing nearly enough future workers to be able to pay back these enormously inefficient and misguided funding practices.
Newhallville wasn’t built because of a school, it was developed along trolley lines extending from downtown and the Winchester factory and served mostly as work force housing, and lower middle class housing. As a result of these economic conditions, the Winchester Avenue school was built on a set-aside lot on Winchester Avenue, with the understanding being that through economic security, the residents would have the demand for schooling.
Nurturing communities are a result of many families who are stable living in close proximity to one another. In our economic system, stability comes from meaningful employment and careers that are fulfilling and provide goods or services that people want and need. If our only economic opportunity is for those who have expensive educations and connections, then we are no longer a viable country, because complete societies have people of all skill levels, and incomes living in close proximity to one another participating in the execution of the democratically decided common good.

posted by: yz on October 27, 2010  3:01am

Jonathan, we are talking about improving basic K-12 education here. If these kids do not receive proper educations, what chance do they have of obtaining “meaningful employment and careers that are fulfilling”? We cannot reminisce about trolleys and factories of the past. Rather, we must consider the present day. Meaningful jobs today require educated people. Even manufacturing today is technical. We have been freed from that class of drudgery, that of being responsible for turning the third screw into the hub of a car. Given the costs of American wages, the future of industry is in technologically advanced processes, not basic manufacturing.

Furthermore, a city with a middle class is a more stable city, economically and socially. You cannot expect to be able to attract such families unless you have a decent public school system. This success of this system-wide school reform is of paramount importance to our city’s future. It is also one of the few areas that city-level government can make a difference. New Haven alone cannot change national economic policy, but surely it can strengthen its schools.

There’s a reason that you’re going to college. You likely want to work in architecture and urban planning. Would it have been possible for you to go to college without a decent primary and secondary education? All American citizens deserve the same equality of opportunity.

posted by: NH Teacher on October 27, 2010  7:04am

2 things… No one has any idea how to deal with a school like this, there are lots of theories, but very very few success stories…  Yes, rookies are at a slight disadvantage.  Yes, TFA is not the whole answer to all of the ills of urban education.  But where the veterans and the regular system has so dramatically failed, I am willing to give anyone who wants to help the chance to do so.

As for the backpack, it is a common feature in classrooms in New Haven.  Sometimes there are no books in them, so there is no discomfort in wearing it.  Sometimes students are actually afraid people will take their stuff if it isn’t attached to something.  Sometimes students don’t expect to stay for very long.  And sometimes they just want to fit in.  Wearing a backpack throughout class has little or no effect on whether or not a student can perform throughout the lesson.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on October 27, 2010  8:34am

posted by: NH Teacher on October 27, 2010 7:04am

2 things… No one has any idea how to deal with a school like this, there are lots of theories, but very very few success stories…  Yes, rookies are at a slight disadvantage.  Yes, TFA is not the whole answer to all of the ills of urban education.  But where the veterans and the regular system has so dramatically failed, I am willing to give anyone who wants to help the chance to do so.

Not true so one did have the idea. It was call the Comer School Development Program.In fact it started in tis state and is used in other states and coutries aroud the world.
The qusetion you shouls ask wht is it not beening used now.

But where the veterans and the regular system has so dramatically failed, I am willing to give anyone who wants to help the chance to do so.

Did you fail.You are a part of the system.

posted by: FIX THE SCHOOLS on October 27, 2010  8:58am

yz,  Well said.

Hopkins, The world has changed since 1940 and yet you continually promote the idea that an antiquated social/economic formula is going to work today when it hasn’t been relevant for decades.  Newhallville wasn’t built because of schooling because back then you didn’t NEED education to work in a factory.  But base manufacturing is long gone and isn’t coming back here. Today’s cutting edge manufacturing requires knowledge.  And even the lowest paid job requires basic literacy and numeracy. 

And as for “expensive”, is it any less expensive to send drop-outs to prison?

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on October 27, 2010  12:41pm

yz and Fix,
I would support educational reform if it could work, but it can’t, so I don’t. The US is an industrial nation with a base in manufacturing. We export most of our pollution costs to Mexico, and most of our manufacturing labor to developing countries. Our domestic economy is based mostly in finance and insurance, which is precisely the culprit in the devaluing of the dollar, the exponential growth of our debt and the corruption of our politics. Importing spatulas, litter boxes and blenders from 8000 miles away is not sustainable. At some point, we are going to have to make things of tangible value again that people want and need. We can either choose to do it soon, or be forced to do it later.
Meaningful and fulfilling employment - like manufacturing and assembling, not designing, the parts of a solar panel, which is what we currently import from China now - has to be the backdrop of a neighborhood in order to deal with the existing populations. By focusing on children, we’re saying that the already left behind generations don’t matter and we should forget about them. The exact opposite is what we should do, we should focus on the existing unemployed and under-employed populations in this city - the drug addicts, dealers, welfare recipients - because they are the ones raising children and coming into contact with them in their neighborhood. Easily accessible employment for existing populations means that even if children don’t make it through the school system, they have opportunities afterward to contribute to society and their children still have a chance to get good educations, which is made easier because employment at something other than McDonald’s makes parents confident, economically secure and that is passed on to the child. Instead of worrying about getting beaten up on the way home from school, or the lights going out at home, the child can focus on what the school lesson was that day. It worked for about a century for European Immigrants, there’s a good possibility it’ll work again.
I did make it through the school system with many good experiences, but kids that were in my very same classes that sat next to me are single parent’s now, high school drop outs, in jail, etc. It’s not because we didn’t receive the same education - we did - it was because of factors at home and in their neighborhoods that stem from decades of disinvestment, deindustrialization, chronic unemployment, the underground drug trade and all the social problems associated with these sustained issues. The schools are pretty good, every traditional public school in this city has turned out college-bound students, the issue isn’t so much the schools as it is the neighborhoods that really determine whether or not a child will succeed.
Times change and we have to sit back every once and a while and ask if those changes were productive or if they set us back. What happens when people choose where to live based on the school district performance? The housing prices in that area sky rocket and price out most people. This practice has had a horrible effect on the housing market by artificially raising or lowering prices way beyond or below their worth.
The middle class is important and the working class is just as important. Did raising crime rates and bad district school performance push the middle class out of the city in the first place? No, the middle class left, then crime increased and schools started performing poorly. The middle class will have to move back first, then crime and education will begin to improve substantially. Until then, we can invest in low-skill assembly, manufacturing and agricultural jobs. The incentive for people to move back to cities is that it is much cheaper to live an urban lifestyle than a suburban one, it’s pretty safe despite the exaggerating, and people are generally happier in urban settings. The mandatory ownership of multiple cars in suburbia is bankrupting families, health care costs from lack of exercise and air pollution is bankrupting families, day care costs are bankrupting families because we now need two working parents to support the suburban lifestyle, and taxes are far too high compared to what we get in return because of the inefficiencies inherent in suburban development patterns.
The reason that school reform won’t work for the masses is because of the simple fact that a child is going to choose protection over enlightenment when faced with the choice. A neighborhood bully isn’t going to stop robbing a child because he knows the symbolism in Moby Dick. Unemployment is at the foundation of New Haven’s decline, misguided government programs made things worse, drugs as an economic engine again made things worse, and mass imprisonment has again made things worse (not on the street, but in our future prospects).

posted by: Another Teacher on October 27, 2010  3:36pm

NH Teacher…I agree with most of your statements…however, students DO need to learn that they give off a message at all times. The messages a student gives off when wearing a book bag during class are as follows: I don’t trust anyone here, include you, teacher. I’m afraid of the world. And, I want to leave.

I ask my students, “Are you staying for class today?” when they wear their bags during class. They usually reply, the first time, “What?” To which I say, “You’re book bag, it looks like you are leaving.” Students some times don’t realize that they give off messages like these.

We, my students and I, attempt to build a community of trust in my classroom. This is difficult, but we work on it all year. And at Domus, I bet that is a huge issue for many students. One way to create that trust is to drop your book bag (and keep all your valuables in your pockets at first, possibly).

posted by: formercrossstudent on October 27, 2010  4:26pm

Another Teacher, although I understand the importance of creating trust, sometimes teachers really need to chose their battles. I remember the backpacks were a big issue at Cross. When teachers addressed it it was always at the beginning of the class in front of all the other students. This created animosity between the student and the teacher. Perhaps Domus is just trying to pick their battles for now, and will address the issue later after their is more trust between the teachers and students. Also, I think the issue might be that kids don’t want to get their expensive backpacks (which they often don’t fill with books) dirty.

posted by: NH Teacher on October 27, 2010  4:32pm


While the Comer model has shown some success, in certain circumstances, it is by no means the silver bullet to educational reform.  More over, much of the evidence cited by the Comer website in support of the Comer model is theoretical in nature, offering little in the way of hard data to demonstrate real student gains.

As for your larger question, the answer would really depend on how you define success.

If you define success in terms of whether or not my students achieved comparable scores to their suburban peers on state-wide standardized tests, then no I did not fail.

If you define success like TFA, in terms of whether or not my students made dramatic gains (more than 1.5 years of learning in one year of school), then I succeeded more often than I failed.

If you define success as ameliorating decades of segregation, institutional poverty, lack of resources, lack of parents (in some cases), mind-boggling red-tape, a systematic devaluing of education in a consumer society, and put my students on a different life path, I can only say that time will tell ... but it ain’t lookin good.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on October 27, 2010  5:26pm

posted by: NH Teacher on October 27, 2010 4:32pm
posted by: NH Teacher on October 27, 2010 4:32pm

While the Comer model has shown some success, in certain circumstances, it is by no means the silver bullet to educational reform.  More over, much of the evidence cited by the Comer website in support of the Comer model is theoretical in nature, offering little in the way of hard data to demonstrate real student gains

I never said that it was a silver bullet to educational reform.From what I heard the funding was cut here in this state.But I will tell you this the charter schools are not going to work either.In fact studies are starting to come out and showing that the charter schools are not out performing the public schools.Case and point President obama talks about the harlem zone that is run by Geoffrey Canada and how he would like Mr.Canada’school to be the model for all of the public scools in the nation.I don’t think so anymore. Mr.Canada got caught with his pants down.

Waiting for Reality… The hype surrounding the Harlem Children’s Zone, and Geoffrey Canada’s lies, half truths, and evasions
Kathy Jacobs - October 16, 2010

In fact Check out Diane Ravitch.

For me the silver bullet to educational reform is to use the system you have and keep vampires out like this.“superman”-school-predators

posted by: student teacher ratio on October 27, 2010  6:03pm

looks like they have the right idea. 6 students / 3 adults? But is this sustainable?

posted by: New Haven Schools on October 27, 2010  7:51pm

New Haven schools need your help. Visit and search for New Haven to make a difference in a local school, particularly one that isn’t being run by a kid two years out of school himself.