From the start, Common Ground has broken new ground. In the late 1980s, community members came together to connect city residents to the natural world, grow healthy food in our community, change the way we educate our children. This video shares some of their stories:
Common Ground’s founders — teachers, environmentalists, concerned citizens, philanthropists — envisioned programs that would use local parks to teach key ecological concepts and to connect youth to natural resources in their own communities. These founders believed in the power of place-based education and in the importance of food as a central environmental and social issue:
The group incorporated as The New Haven Ecology Project in 1990, and set the long-term goal that still guides our work today: to promote healthy lifestyles and model environmental practices at a working demonstration farm, school, and environmental center in New Haven.
Common Ground’s work started small. They tested their early ideas at High School in the Community and the West Rock Nature Center before venturing out to create something new of their own. In 1994, a full-time staff of one ran pilot programs in teacher training, service learning at several middle schools, and ecology summer camp at the West Rock Nature Center.
Soon after, Common Ground’s leaders began the search for a permanent home. The Ecology Project negotiated with the New Haven Department of Parks, Recreation, and Trees to lease 20 acres of abandoned park land at 358 Springside Avenue, at the base of West Rock Ridge State Park. Twenty years ahead of the current movement for urban agriculture, our founders dug in and created Connecticut’s longest-running community farm.
With national interest in charter schools growing, Connecticut passed enabling legislation and approved the first ten charters in 1997, requiring the schools to open by September. The Ecology Project’s proposal for Common Ground High School was approved in this cycle, and the school opened in late August. Our first teachers and students took classes at Southern Connecticut State University, then walked to our site to remove invasive species, haul several tons of illegally dumped garbage, and build a school from the ground up.
As the high school program grew, so did community environmental programs. In 2002, 35 local kids joined in our summer camp. Today, 900 do. Over the last 10 years, our community of program participants has grown tenfold, and our offerings have expanded to include job training opportunities, healthy cooking workshops, after-school programs, vacation camps, and more.
Today, Common Ground has grown into the ambition of its founders:
The students of Common Ground High School are growing into the next generation of environmental leaders and successful college students. After five years of test score gains – including the state’s largest in 2010 – the percentage of students demonstrating proficiency has more than doubled in every subject. More than 96% are accepted to college, less than 3% drop out of high school, and 75% will be the first in their family to complete higher education.
This year, the programs of our Environmental Education Center – summer camps, after-school programs, school field trips, Green Jobs opportunities, and major community festivals – connected more than 10,000 community members with the natural world, up 500% in 5 years. These programs are demonstrating real impact. For instance, parent surveys tell us that the 300+ participants in our after-school programs are 22% more likely to choose outdoor exercise, 55% more likely to try new healthy foods, and 85% more likely to demonstrate environmental knowledge and behaviors after participating in the programs.
Our urban farm is producing more than 35,000 servings of vegetables each year. This harvest allows us to provide free lunch to every Common Ground High School Student. It also allows us to get fresh, healthy food to those who need it most – through a new mobile farm market, an on-site farmstand, CitySeed Farmer’s markets, and donations to emergency food providers.