Forget the formaldehyde — and no need for a dissection kit either. In Samantha Rowe’s high school science class, students don’t dissect chickens. They incubate chicken eggs, and then, six weeks later, watch as some of the birds are slaughtered.
Rowe attends Common Ground High School, New Haven’s only charter school and also the Elm City’s only school whose campus doubles as a farm. The school, located in the West Rock neighborhood, teaches all the standard high school classes, but does so through the lens of sustainable ecology and environmentalism. The student body is small, only 135 students in total, and many of the students, 90 percent of whom come from New Haven public middle schools, are from disadvantaged backgrounds or struggle academically. Nevertheless, the school maintains a 90 percent college acceptance rate, Oliver Barton, the school’s director, said.
As a charter school, Common Ground is run by a private nonprofit, the New Haven Ecology Project, but it is a public school whose admission is granted through the same lottery system that controls admissions to New Haven’s many magnet schools. In addition to some state funding, Common Ground is supported by a number of grants, meaning that the school must constantly be on the lookout for money to support its programs. The city of New Haven contributes only bus passes and funds for special education.
“The public school system sees charters as sort of competition, so they don’t like to fund anything they’re not required to by law,” Barton said.
In return, however, Common Ground is at liberty to set its own curriculum, although it is required to administer statewide exams to measure reading and math proficiency.
“Teachers design the curriculum. We have to pay attention to the state’s framework, like every other school, but we get to decide how the schedule works from the teacher level,” said Joan Gillette, an English teacher who used to teach at Hillhouse High School. “It keeps the dollar closer to the kids.”
After experimenting with ecology courses through High School in the Community, Gillette and Barton, along with a few other teachers, formed NHEP, which founded Common Ground in 1997 as a public charter school that would take an interdisciplinary approach towards education.
“Cause and effect becomes very clear … and if we can get students to understand that in the natural world, they can transfer it into society,” Gillette said. “Everything is connected to everything else, and we try to make our kids understand that.”
Besides the high school staples like algebra, the curriculum at Common Ground works ecology into most of its course work, such as the course “Egg & Seed,” the class where Rowe saw the slaughtered chickens. In the class, students follow an egg and a seed up to the transformation into chicken and harvestable plant. And some of the organic produce raised on the school’s working farm ends up in dishes served at Claire’s Cornercopia.
More than just the ecological underpinnings of the curriculum — which Gillette said students learn to love as they progress through Common Ground, but which does not often draw students to the school — the small size of Common Ground distinguishes it from the other public high schools in the city.
“It was a smaller school, so I thought it’d be easier to relate to everyone and stay out of trouble,” Rowe, a junior, said. “I’m from Hamden, and it’s just drama like crazy over there.”
But although Common Ground might be less chaotic than Hamden’s big public high school, many of Common Ground’s students have a lot of progress to make between enrolling in ninth grade and trying to get into college.
“Twenty-five percent of our kids are either special-education, on probation or parole, wards of the state through the Department of Children and Families, or have faced some traumatic event at home” such as a jailed or absent parent or abuse at home, Barton said.
A quick glance at the school newspaper’s opinion page confirms the troubled backgrounds of some students. Next to a column pronouncing “Church” and “Fitted hats” as “In,” but “Going to the prom solo” and “Girls with ponytails” as “Out,” is a brief piece by a student about her frustration with being unable to see her incarcerated boyfriend.
Academic issues also plague some — though by no means all — of Common Ground’s students. Sixty percent of the students enter Common Ground below grade level in reading or math skills, Barton said, and not many manage to improve enough to pass the standardized tests administered by the state in sophomore year.
“We do operate well belong the state average … It’s such a huge stretch to come in at a fourth or fifth grade reading level to get to a 12th grade level [by graduation],” he said. “Even if they come in two or three years behind, that’s not uncommon.”
Peter Fishman ’06, who worked for two years as public school intern at Common Ground and who is now a coordinator of the Public School Intern program, said the student body at Common Ground has students with a wide diversity of academic ability.
“You’re working with 11th graders just reading a page long essay and comprehending what the argument is,” Fishman said. “That’s not to say that everyone at the school is behind grade level — some are ahead of grade level.”
Fishman said a number of exceptional students each year are able to take classes at Gateway Community College with the support of the Common Ground administration. Barton confirmed that 15 to 20 students each year, nearly 10 percent of the school, enroll in Gateway for some coursework. College Resource Center, a Dwight Hall organization which helps New Haven public school students plan for and apply to college, also does work at the school, coordinator Lekshmi Santhosh ’07 said.
“There’s a bunch of kids who go to Gateway and University of New Haven, but they are exploring a bunch of other schools in Connecticut, [and] there are a couple who are looking at NYU or George Washington,” she said. “Common Ground has a very unique structure, and since it’s different from all the other public schools in the region, some kids who would have been left behind at a normal public school are thriving.”
The school remains below average in terms of standardized test scores, but many, such as the writers of the school paper’s “What’s In/What’s Out” column, are clearly motivated:
“Going to college: IN — I’m going, so fall in line. “Staying on the block: OUT.”
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