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Living on the Earth, April 11, 1997: Common Ground
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
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
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
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
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
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C)1997, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491