Common Ground: A Laboratory of Educational Innovation
Charter schools are known for their innovation and uniqueness, and in New Haven, there is one school that truly stands out. Common Ground is a college preparatory, environmentally-focused, public charter high school nestled in West Rock, New Haven. The school boasts a curriculum centered around being good stewards of the planet and educating young adults about environmental justice. Though what stands out most about Common Ground is that the school is built on a community farm that grows more than 10,000 pounds of food every year. The school then shares its harvest with more than 2,500 low-income members of the New Haven community.
The mentality of Common Ground is best summed up by a quote from Shannon Raider, the school’s farm manager which can be found on the school’s website: “Fresh, local food should be a right… not a privilege.”
And this year, Common Ground is one of eight charter schools celebrating their 20th anniversary in Connecticut. Common Ground serves 200 students in grades 9-12 with plans to expand to an additional 10 seats next year. These additional seats were made possible by a new facility which added state-of-the-art science classrooms
We had the opportunity to sit down with Liz Cox, the Director of Common Ground, and discuss her experience running the federally recognized Green Ribbon school. To qualify for the Green Ribbon Award, a school must be nominated by their state education authority for their continued ability to reduce environmental impact, ability to improve health and wellness of students and staff, and a strong incorporation of environmental education.
When Liz first came to New Haven with her husband more than 20 years ago, she initially worked in healthcare administration, commuting daily to New York City. Opting for something closer to home, Liz earned a teaching certification from Southern Connecticut State University and began to work part-time as an educator. Liz did this all while managing the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry in downtown New Haven.
Acknowledging a need for increased educational opportunities for young people in the New Haven community, several of Liz’s colleagues came together to write the original charter for what would later be known as Common Ground.
One thing that made Common Ground unique in its early years was that it was run by faculty members.
“It was shared leadership,” Liz explained. “They had rotating leadership, faculty coordinators -- I think they called them at the time -- and they had full time teaching loads too.”
In time, however, the group realized that their school model wasn’t sustainable.
“So, they called me in,” Liz recalled.
Liz, who holds a bachelor’s in English and a Master of Business Administration from Cornell University, began working part-time with Common Ground teaching English and handling administrative needs. This later developed into her full-time role as the school’s director.
Reflecting on the charter option, Liz believes that school choice as a whole is paramount.
“I think the charter option here was especially important because families felt that they didn’t have options,” she said. “In some cases, they were in districts or schools that their children were not achieving at levels they wanted them to achieve. The opportunity to be laboratories of educational innovation and think outside the box, coupled with our mission-driven aspect produced a different kind of school choice.”
“We’ve always considered ourselves a community school,” Liz says of Common Ground’s connection with the surrounding community. “We are a charter, but we see ourselves doing the same work as all public schools in New Haven. While we are not part of the New Haven public school district, we are serving the same kids and doing the same work. We have a lot we can learn from one another.”
Through its innovative farm and environmental education programs -- including a host of summer camp options for the younger set -- Common Ground helps to spark a real dialogue about food security, environmental self-sustainability, and self-awareness among members of the greater New Haven community.
Congratulations to Common Ground for all of your achievements these past twenty years! We look forward to seeing how you will grow and continue to improve the lives of your students and the New haven community!
On June 4, 1996, Governor John Rowland signed the law establishing public charter schools in the state of Connecticut. In doing so, he transformed the lives of tens of thousands of families in our state who, thanks to charters, have had the opportunity to choose a different kind of public school for their child.
There are eight charter schools in Connecticut now celebrating their 20th school year - that's two decades of life-changing education. These schools offer a unique perspective of how far we've come, and how far we have to go to provide more high-quality options to the kids who are still waiting for that chance.
Over the next few months, we'll be sharing some of their stories, highlighting their students' accomplishments, showing what makes them diverse and different, and how their educators are working to make lives better for the families they serve.