Common Ground Sprouts Green Addition

Aliyya Swaby PhotoNyasia Mercer said now that Common Ground has a new building able to accommodate a major expansion in students and activities, the school will no longer be a secret to those outside of its grounds.

The graduating senior spoke about her pride for Common Ground High School at a celebration of its new sustainable building Thursday morning, alongside state and local officials who pushed for the money to fund it. Leaders said the school’s expansion represents a move toward closing the achievement gap dividing students who will graduate into college and careers and those who will not.

The 13,000-square foot building will allow the urban environmental charter school to expand from 180 to 225 students, and includes an auditorium and half-court gym, two science labs, and an art studio—largely powered by geothermal and solar energy. Community members will be welcome to use the school’s environmental education center for outside programs.

The construction was funded by a public-private partnership, with state money being matched by $2.1 million in contributions from local organizations, said Executive Director Melissa Spear.

Mayor Toni Harp encouraged students in the audience to learn from the collaboration and leadership of state officials that made the building possible. Harp was a state senator when she first began meeting with school leaders to plan the project.

The expansion of the school reflects a “growing demand” for learning about sustainable practices that Common Ground teaches its students, Harp said. “A green building makes perfect sense,” she said.

State Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell asked seniors in the room to raise their hands. On one side of the room, a few rows of hands shot up. “At this point in your academic career, you’re, I’m sure, engaged in reflection,” she said, which also involves thinking forward.

In the past few years, Common Ground has increased its graduation rate—with a rate in 2014 that “outpaced the state,” Wentzell said. And last year, all students graduated on time with their cohort. “You’ve learned some things that we need to understand better,” she said.

State Senators Gary Winfield and Martin Looney praised school leaders for their accomplishments.

Winfield said it was “easy” for him to get on board with pushing to fund the new building’s construction, because of his commitment to closing the achievement gap and addressing “children on the wrong end” of that gap.

Designed by Gray Organschi Architecture, the building is powered by a “geothermal system” with 18 deep wells that harness the net heating and cooling of the earth, said spokesperson Joel Tolman. A set of solar panels will be installed to provide at least 75 percent of electric power, and the building was oriented to let in as much daylight as possible.

The building is held up by large structural columns of “cross-laminated timber” from small trees that grow in Quebec and are cut down when they have taken up the maximum amount of carbon, Tolman said. It is the largest building in the country so far to use this type of timber for its entire structure. Traditional steel structures of this sort destroy the environment, instead of helping it.

This project is the equivalent of taking 100 cars off the road for a year, he said.

In tours after the conference finished, five students explained the landscape architecture planned for just outside the new building. A major problem at Common Ground is that water runoff travels across the parking lot and drags pollutants into the neighboring brook, said sophomore Isobel Browe.

The land outside the building will feature bioswales, which will remove the pollutants from the runoff water and soak in some of the additional liquid, to keep the brook clean, she said.

Juniors Julia Farquharson and Sonny Reed explained that traditional monocultural grass would not be planted outside the building. Instead, a variety of plant species native to the state will be planted, which do not need pesticides and an excess of water to keep alive, Reed said.

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posted by: christopher desir on June 6, 2016  9:42am

It doesn’t make sense to compare the graduation rates of a school like Common Ground to those of public Highscools like hill house or Cross. For one, Common Ground can and does push out a number of the students most in danger of not graduating. Those students often end up going to schools like Hillhouse and Cross. For two, the Race and class demographics of Common Ground are much different than those of the aforementioned schools. They are simply not comparable and it’s counterproductive, and unfair to the larger public schools, to compare the two in this way. It feeds into this anti public school “failing school” narrative pushed by charter schools and pro charter school lobbying organizations.

posted by: Brutus2011 on June 9, 2016  1:32pm

I am an opponent of corporate charter schools in general, but a proponent of Common Ground.

Common Ground High School (CGHS) is not a corporate charter school but a community based organization (New Haven Ecology Project-NHEP) charter school that is only part of the NHEP mission and activities. NHEP has many service projects that directly benefit the community—children’s programs and camps and fresh produce made available here in New Haven.

To conflate CGHS with say, Amistad Academy or Achievement First (AF) and NHEP is simply erroneous.

I repeat, AF and NHEP are organizations that are miles apart. Amistad and CGHS are miles apart.

First of all, minority students make up 75% of the student body at CGHS. How is that so much a difference of race and class from other New Haven high schools?

Secondly, CGHS does not cherry pick as do AF schools. I know, because I made it my business to know. Read my posts over time and you will know why I made it my business to know.

And, as far as unruly or disruptive students go, what is your suggestion as to how to handle their behavior?

My suggestion is for you (1) to get your facts straight and (2) to go and figure out why NHPS classrooms are allowed to be so chaotic as to impact student learning as negatively as it has for decades now. (Hint-its not the teacher’s fault.)

posted by: christopher desir on June 9, 2016  9:47pm

Brutus, I worked at Common Ground for about 3 years so I know the school and organization well. I understand the difference between Common Ground and schools like Achievement First. I am not conflating the two schools. I was trying to make the following points:

1) Common Ground has much greater freedom to choose/tailor it’s student population than a traditional public school.

2) Common Ground does push students out. I have witnessed this process take place numerous times. It is often the students with the most academic and/or social needs. These students often end up at the public schools against which Common Ground is being compared.

3) The demographics you mention are exactly why I think it is unfair to compare graduation rates without context.

4) Common Ground does, actively and passively, participate in the rhetorical battle against traditional public schools. That rally on the green last year (the one where the rallying cry was “failing public schools”) was an official Common Ground field trip (same as AF as far as I understand). (this one:

All this is not to say that Common Ground is identical to Achievement First. They are very different. Common ground does some things very well and offers a great option for many of its students. However, it is still not fair to compare their graduation rates with those of the traditional public schools without contextualizing the comparison. The fact that Common Ground has higher graduation rates does not necessarily mean it is doing a better job because it is working under much different conditions (in terms of student demographics, funding, flexibility of curriculum, support staff, the list goes on) than the public schools against which its being compared.