Common Ground

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, April 11, 1997

The Common Ground High School is looking for New Haven ninth and tenth grade students who want to be educational pioneers.

Nearly 15 years ago, I had the good fortune to work with several exceptional teachers at an innovative New Haven magnet school. Collaborating with the UConn Extension Service, we created five courses designed to connect urban students with some of the realities of city food, energy and waste systems.

The most exciting of the classes we developed was an Ecology Course which met four hours a day, for eight weeks in the spring, on a small farm at West Rock Nature Center. Daily lectures about important ecological topics were reinforced by study and work in the natural ecosystems of the park and the human-created ecosystems of the gardens, barnyard and compost bins. Students and teachers were glad to escape from the school building, whether it was a cold day in April or a hot one in June. They learned about dressing for comfort in the elements rather than only to be fashionable. Many students realized for the first time that vegetables come from the ground and can be eaten straight from the garden. They were amazed that eggs come out of a chicken's rear end.

We found that the farm setting allowed students with different abilities, skills and backgrounds to work cooperatively. Baby chickens, piglets, emerging seedlings and decomposing compost piles stimulated questions and motivated learners naturally. The farm nourishes curiosity with endless opportunities for seeing connections and for caring. Today's students' poor academic skills are well-documented. Even more troubling perhaps, is the lack of basic human skills - working together, growing and cooking food, using hand tools, and building a fire, to name just a few examples.

The Ecology Course was so exciting that, after funding ran out, the teachers kept it going with donations from a local Rotary club and themselves. I continued to provide farm animals. Every year a new group of New Haven high school students participated in this holistic learning experience by directly interacting with the world around them. This is way people have traditionally learned.

In 1989, after seven years of success with the Ecology Course, several of those involved founded the non-profit New Haven Ecology Project whose goal was to create a school which uses an urban farm as the context for learning. New Haven had been establishing new magnet schools, so we figured that our school would be up and running in just a few years.

Starting a school took longer than we thought, however, but meanwhile we found ways to expand the reach of our hands-on, farm-based education. Currently, between 150 to 200 students, from kindergarten kids to high-school seniors, visit the Farm at West Rock each week, and the Ecology Course just began another year. Although its students come from a different school the concept still works 14 years later.

Last month, Connecticut's Board of Education granted the New Haven Ecology Project a Charter for the Common Ground High School. Now, a farm-based high school which emphasizes hands-on activities, interdisciplinary academics, community service and a healthy connection to the natural world, will become a reality.

The public Common Ground High School, located on the new 20-acre Springside Farm in New Haven, is surrounded on three sides by the magnificant ecosystems of 1,500-acre West Rock Ridge State Park. Quite a natural learning laboratory! We invite ninth and tenth grade students to participate in a rigorous academic curriculum and to play a major role in creating the school and building the farm.

There are still some big uncertainties, however. Sixty students must be enrolled by May 1 for the Ecology Project to secure state funding. And, we're busy raising buildings and money.

Forests, streams, gardens and barnyards have much to teach us. What we learn there may be more important than what we learn in classrooms and from computers. To address the very real problems we have in our relationships with the Earth, and with each other, we need future citizens who can solve problems creatively and who really understand the processes and connections upon which we all depend.

The New Haven Ecology Project is honored and proud to be able to develop the first Charter High School on a working farm. Call (203) 946-8017 for more information.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.