By Kate Cebik

The evidence is all around us. Seniors are arriving sharply dressed, notecards in hand, PowerPoints ready to launch. The air is buzzing with nervous energy. Applause erupts throughout the day. It is senior portfolio season.

But just what does that mean? Every Common Ground senior is required to present a defense of their work, highlighting their growth as a leader, to a panel made up of members of school faculty and staff. An eager audience of the student’s peers, family, and other members of the school community supports and cheers each presenter on.


Common Ground’s POWER framework —Pride, Ownership, Wonder, Effort, Respect – is in full effect. Students explain what these terms have come mean to them personally, and relate them to experiences from their academic and extracurricular work. They also tie their reflections to the nationally recognized 21st Century Skills required for graduation.

Senior Michael Kelsey broke the ice at the start of his presentation by asking us each to say what grocery item we would be and why. The crowd warmed to him quickly as we all scrambled through our shopping lists to find suitable analogies. (Can you guess which Common Ground employee was a jar of honey? Who was Kale?)

He continued, telling us how he came to Common Ground, arriving as a shy kid unable to find his roots.

I attended 5 different schools in 3 years, and when that happens, it’s hard to call home ‘home’ or friends ‘friends,’ but I found both here.”

“Ownership is taking control of one’s own life…I took control of my life and my academics and showed I am capable of controlling my life in the best possible way.

Giana Vargas also spoke to Ownership in her defense, saying,

Ownership is important. If you don’t own up to your mistakes, you can’t learn from them…I learned to ask for help. That doesn’t show I’m uneducated but instead that I’m smart enough to know when I need help.

Aridyan Perez brought this theme of changing expectations of self into her internship at John Martinez School. While there, she worked with eighth graders from Fair Haven, and found this experience to illustrate the POWER characteristic of Effort.

They expressed that they would never amount to anything—no one expects them to because they are from Fair Haven. I told them otherwise. You can do anything if you put in the effort. I didn’t feel I could be successful being from Bridgeport but learned not to be ashamed of where you are from.

Freddy McGirt defended his senior portfolio to a standing-room only crowd, noting the impact Respect had on him.

“If you can’t respect people out there in the world, how can you respect yourself?

he asked us.

Students had a range of academic and extracurricular experiences. Meisha Hennessy spoke about a service trip to Kenya, where she and other volunteers constructed a water filtration system and stocked a library for a village. The impact for the Kenyans was striking—Illness and disease rates fell drastically after the implementation of these systems. But also striking was the impact the experience and the Kenyans left on Meisha.

Even though there were religious, cultural, and language barriers, we worked side by side and [the Kenyan villagers] became like family to me….I’ve always been told to turn off lights when I leave a room, or shut off the water, but spending time in Kenya without electricity—watching small kids carry buckets of water to their homes—made me think of all this in a new way, and not take what I have for granted.

Perhaps one of the most surprising things to hear from this composed, confident young woman were these words:

If you would have told me freshman year I would have gotten into college, I wouldn’t have believed you…and now I’m in. With a scholarship. And I’m proud.

 

Change is a compelling theme echoed by several students during presentations. I didn’t think I could, but now I know I can. Reilly Stevens proclaimed,

If you had told me when I was in the eighth grade that I was going to be taking pre-calculus and a college class now, I would have thought you were crazy. I didn’t even know if I wanted to go to college.

Reilly was recently accepted to Mills College.

Jesus Reyes spoke powerfully about the experience of creating a natural memorial to his friend and fellow student Javi Martinez, a student tragically lost to gun violence on December 28, 2013.

By building this memorial, I re-found myself and my community… [I learned that] something will always be there for you, and that something is nature.

Jesus concluded with,

Common Ground: gave me opportunity, gave me drive, and taught me not to settle. I gave Common Ground proof that the opportunities are real.

These seniors have made some impressive journeys as they prepare to head off into the world. They will make a difference in this world. They will lead. The evidence is all around us.