20 Grads: Graduation a True Family Affair

For Taylor Pauls, a 19-year old senior at Common Ground High School, attending graduation is about being there for her family.

Taylor will be the first from her family to graduate high school and the first to head to college, so this accomplishment means a lot to her support system.

“At first, I didn’t want to go to my graduation because it’s going to be a really emotional day for me and my family. I wasn’t really ready for that,” said Taylor. “But as I see my family making all of these reservations to be here, I’m like, ‘wow, this is for them, it’s not just about me.’”

“My guidance teacher, Mr. Kelahan, told me, ‘This is for your mother, your aunts, your cousins, who’ve been there all your high school career. They’re looking forward to this moment, to seeing you walk on that stage and get your diploma,’” recalled Taylor. “That’s what I’m doing this for, I’m doing this for them.”

Graduating from Common Ground wasn’t always a sure thing for Taylor. When she and her mother – who has been Taylor’s main source of guidance and support since she was seven – entered her into the school choice lottery, they didn’t realize how tough it would be to travel across the city each day for school. Taylor’s freshman year was a struggle as she adjusted to the new environment, and she headed into summer wondering if she could continue. “My biggest challenge was not giving up,” said Taylor. “Coming from a family where there are a lot of dropouts who left and got their GED, it was hard to not follow in their footsteps.”

Thankfully, she had a strong support system that kept her moving forward.

At school, Mr. Kelahan is the pillar of that system and has helped her from day one. “He’s always honest and is a genuinely good person,” says Taylor. “As my guidance teacher, he’s been there for me and my guidance brothers and sisters helping us walk the right path.”

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Taylor and Mr. Kelahan in Common Ground’s new school building. 

That support also applied to searching for college, something Taylor and many of their peers didn’t know how to approach.

“If we came to him with an idea of what we wanted to do post-high school, he’d provide us with a whole bunch of opportunities through his network,” recalled Taylor. “He has taken me and other students to numerous colleges to expose us to college life.”

That preparation paid off: Taylor is heading to Eastern Connecticut State University next year to study biology as she works toward her goal of becoming a veterinarian. “There aren’t a lot of veterinarians of color,” says Taylor. “I’m not sure if I want to work with livestock or cats and dogs, but I know I want to help animals.”

She’ll be spending the summer in service of that dream, working as a camp counselor at The Farm School in Orange, Mass. She’ll be tending to the animals and helping teach and supervise the kids with chores, forestry, farming, barn work and cooking. 

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Taylor, in yellow, working as a program leader for Solar Youth through Common Ground's Green Jobs Corps.

Taylor learned to love much of that work at Common Ground.

“Common Ground shaped me into the person that I wanted to be ever since middle school,” says Taylor. “It showed me what my priorities are, who I want to be to my friends, my family, and myself. It was the best four years of my life.”

Taylor’s biggest project of those four years was her Capstone Project, which she needed to complete to graduate. She and a group of friends focused on women’s rights, specifically maternal rights, family planning, and human trafficking. 

“In order to build awareness and create discussion on these issues, we created a painting that opens up dialogue on and offers facts about those three topics. We took this title from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ essay,” said Taylor. “The project really opened my eyes to what issues minority women struggle with.”

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Now that graduation is finally here, there’s a lot about Common Ground that Taylor is going to miss: The landscape, hearing the rooster every day, going up and down the hill every morning. “I’m going to miss my friends and guidance teacher most.”

To Taylor, Common Ground is more than a school; it’s a community. And according to her, the food – which is mostly grown on campus – is what brings everyone together.

“It’s the kind of food you sit down and enjoy. It’s like Thanksgiving dinner for lunch every day,” she says. “So you get to come together with your friends and teachers and talk about what’s going on in everyone’s lives.”

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Taylor at work with staff from Audubon CT and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, analyzing the impact of urban habitat restoration efforts on insect biodiversity.

“I’m looking forward to bringing what I’ve learned here at Common Ground to college. Being able to keep this environment into my college years, in terms of environmental justice, mindfulness, and friendliness, will help make me successful there.”

As she walks across the stage in front of her mother, aunts, cousins, and her Common Ground family, there will be no question that Taylor is already a success, and will only continue to make her ever-growing support system proud!

Mike is the former Deputy Communications Director for Connecticut for the Northeast Charter Schools Network.
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20 Grads: Graduation a True Family Affair
20 Grads: Graduation a True Family Affair
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