by Melissa Spear, Executive Director
Last Wednesday, I spent the morning in Hartford attending a Connecticut State Board of Education meeting. This meeting was the culmination of a 6 month long charter renewal process during which a team from the Connecticut State Department of Education performed an in depth review of Common Ground High School. The Charter Renewal Team carefully evaluated both qualitative and quantitative evidence for everything from the academic performance of our students to our policies and procedures; from our student absenteeism rates to our finances and financial controls; from our curriculum to the way our Board governs; from the demographics of our school population to our legal compliance.
At the meeting last week, the results of this review were presented to the State Board of Education — along with a recommendation to renew our charter for a full 5 years, the maximum allowed by state law. Here is what the State Department of Education review team reported to the State Board when making their recommendation:
Common Ground provides its students and their families from 17 sending districts with a high-quality public school education. The data demonstrate the school is satisfactorily achieving its mission and successfully closing Connecticut’s achievement gap. – Connecticut State Department of Education
All of us at Common Ground are honored and grateful to have been granted another 5 years in which to continue our work at the high school. It is a testament to the passionate, student centered approach that Liz Cox, our Director of School, and her staff bring to their work as educators.
The day following our charter renewal, I was again in Hartford attending a rally in support of charter schools in Connecticut. There is a lot at stake for Connecticut charter schools right now, as the legislature considers putting a two year moratorium on growth in the number of students charter schools can enroll.
This proposal to freeze charter school enrollment would be particularly painful for Common Ground. After 3 years of careful planning, 3 years of fundraising, and a significant investment in its design, we have begun construction of a new school building that would allow us to grow our student body from 180 to 225 students. This modest increase in our student body would allow us to increase the number and variety of classes we can offer, provide us with more flexibility in scheduling our day, and ensure the operation of Common Ground High School is adequately funded over the long term. Most importantly, it would let us respond to the demand of families who want their children to go to school at Common Ground.
I don’t think I am mistaken when I say that Common Ground is well respected within the New Haven community for the work we are doing, and that bringing an additional 40 students into this work would not raise significant local objections.
Like every one of Connecticut’s 21 charter schools, Common Ground has its own, unique story to tell. However, the specific story of the positive, local impacts of our work is often overshadowed by the larger debate playing out with regard to charter schools in general — a debate that is fueled by intense passions on both sides, that at times is less than civil, that sometimes plays fast and loose with the “facts”, and has resorted to negative rhetoric in lieu of constructive dialogue.
I find myself disheartened and saddened by both the tone and the content of the discourse taking place in anticipation of legislative action on the budget. For all the hard work we have engaged in to build productive partnerships with our neighboring public schools, to ensure the best possible outcomes for our students and their families, to be positive, contributing members of our community, it has been painful to think that we are now being defined not by our work and its impact, but by the ongoing dispute about charter schools in general.
I won’t deny that this dispute is pertinent to our identity. Common Ground High School is, after all, a charter school. We are proud to be part of Connecticut’s community of charter schools, and value the combination of autonomy and accountability that being a charter gives us. But the attacks being made on charter schools in the press, and in the halls of Hartford, often seem very remote from who we actually are as an organization, or how we view the world.
In almost every way, Common Ground does not fit the “profile” of charter schools that is typically drawn by those who are advocating against them. We serve a concentration of low-income and special needs students that is comparable to or greater than that served by our sending school districts. Our student body is genuinely diverse. We fundraise a total of 17% of our annual budget from foundations and individuals. We spend no money on lobbying with the exception of a handful of trips to Hartford each year to talk to our legislators. Our audited financial statements are available to anyone who requests them. Our Board membership consists entirely of New Haven residents who are active members of our community. And the academic achievements of our students has been recognized nationally.
Given who we actually are, it is painful when I see charter schools depicted as beholden to outside interests, serving an elite student body, and engaged in aggressive lobbying tactics which if successful will drain money from traditional public schools. I think other charter schools in the state of Connecticut must feel this same disconnect.
At the same time, we do not think it’s productive to label local public schools, even those who are struggling, as failing schools. Nor do we see ourselves as the silver bullet that can fix a “failing” system. We see our relationship with local public schools as that of partners in the common struggle to provide the best possible outcomes for all of our students and our community. We are anxious to learn from the many successful strategies that our local public schools employ, and we are always looking for ways to share our ideas and successes with our local school systems. We want to help create a vibrant educational system that includes many different kinds of schools that collectively meet the needs of many different kinds of learners.
At Common Ground we are trying very hard to concentrate on our work and our students. While at times I want to put my head down and hope for the best, at this point it seems unwise — and untenable — for Common Ground to step back from the charter school debate. There is too much at stake for us, and for our students.
So let me be clear: I fully support funding charter school growth in Connecticut. Charter schools, like traditional public schools, are not perfect. But they make a positive contribution to our educational system as a whole. I am just hoping that our community, and our legislators, can see beyond the negative rhetoric that currently seems to be dominating this debate. Perhaps I am naïve but I believe there has to be a more productive way to engage over these issues, that recognizes the good that both charter schools and traditional public schools bring to the education table, finds a way to adequately meet the needs of both, and contributes to building the vibrant, diverse, successful educational community of which we all want to be a part.