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Magna Charter

It’s 1:45 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, and Alexis Wilcox is leading twelve high-schoolers balancing five-pound medicine balls in their hands up a large hill. Students who’d rather play hooky than suffer the haul may find themselves making a 6 a.m. “sunrise hike” the next morning—no student in Ms. Wilcox’s class gets away without making up for an absence. She tolerates neither tardiness nor poor discipline. Each student has exactly three minutes to get dressed in athletic clothes, and even the slightest infraction is punished. At the beginning of each academic year, Ms. Wilcox’s students sign a contract including the key clause: “YOU WILL BEHAVE.” Needless to say, Wilcox is serious about her course in Physical Education at Common Ground Charter High School, but that doesn’t faze senior Latelia Bunch, who insists that her authoritarian teacher is “a really cool person.” As Bunch explains, “It’s really intense. Whether it’s rain or shine, you’re going outside.”

Wilcox is exhibit A for charter school advocates who see schools like Common Ground as an exciting new approach to public education, sanctioned and paid for by the public school system but free of its bureaucratic hurdles. Smaller than regular public schools and run by a “governing board” of teachers, parents, and administrators, charter schools were initially conceived as a solution to educational underperformance in public schools. Connecticut adopted charter legislation in 1997 and has since built 18 charter schools throughout the state, three of them in New Haven.

Common Ground’s unconventional ethos, which could never be supported in a regular public school, centers on an expansive definition of the word “environmentalism.” Oliver Barton, the school’s founding director, explains that Common Ground’s approach to nature “isn’t necessarily forestry or global warming, but using the local community and physical environment as a classroom for teaching.” Although teachers still tailor classes to state testing standards, the curriculum at Common Ground is designed to spur both environmental consciousness and a commitment to the city in which its students live.

“We’re talking about the place,” says Joel Tolman, who has taught history and social studies at Common Ground for five years.  “New Haven is an incredibly rich learning community, and our students can explore it on the city buses.” So while other New Haven students study geometry, Common Ground’s pupils map the angles of architecture throughout the city. Instead of a cut-and-dry biology class, they take a class in biodiversity, plotting local data on charts and graphic models.

Though reputed among New Haven youth as “the school where kids chase chickens all day,” Common Ground students don’t just plant strawberries and dig up potatoes for credit (though both garden tasks are part of the curriculum). The curriculum is rigorous enough that 90 percent of the school’s graduating class matriculates to college.

The high-achieving nature of the Common Ground student body should not be surprising, given that the school, like many of its charter cousins, was planned and founded by teachers. As Barton explains, the Connecticut school board wasn’t always enthusiastic about their plans, and it was difficult to sell the program to kids who had never been hiking before. By February of 1997, though, the board had come around and approved the proposal for Common Ground. Seven months later, the school opened its doors. “It was like building an airplane while you’re flying it,” Barton recalls. “But it was an exciting plane to be flying. We were living on raw energy.”

That energy continues to drive Common Ground’s unusually dedicated faculty. Because the school runs itself with little interference from the State, its survival depends on the above-and-beyond efforts of teachers like Wilcox and Tolman. Though the average Common Ground teacher makes over five thousand dollars less each year than other New Haven teachers, the school’s faculty and staff pride themselves on knowing the name of every student in school by the third week of classes. Some take on other responsibilities as well, such as leading extracurricular programs, helping out with administrative paperwork, or participating in public outreach. A few offer job training to students or work at the school’s summer camp. Others help match students to social services around the city. Each year, teachers run a commencement ceremony called “Step-Up,” during which they tell personalized stories about each graduate. And that hard work seems to pay off—as one student says, “You can talk to a teacher like they’re your friend.”

These unusual faculty members are attracted, in part, by Common Ground’s unique history and alternative mission. Ten years ago, the West Rock park in which Common Ground now stands was a trash-heap, a makeshift dump when the nearby Hamden Waste and Recycling Facility was closed. The park authority was eager for change and welcomed Common Ground’s plans. Early on, “part of our work was just making the park a useable space again,” explains Barton.

Yet even with an innovative curriculum, involved faculty, and an apparently happy student body—“it gives you something normal public schools couldn’t give you,” notes Bunch, a senior—Common Ground and its fellow charter schools are not without their critics. Stephen T. Cassano, the former mayor of Manchester and a prominent member of the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF), claims that charter schools are merely private schools usurping public school funding. “Unfortunately, education spending remains a zero-sum game, and charter school gains mean further public school losses,” CCJEF stated in a 2006 testimony to the Connecticut Education Committee. Cassano faults charter schools for their ability to skirt the rules and not bother with expensive special education classes. “If a kid acts up in the charter schools, you throw them out,” he explains. “You can’t do that in the public school system.” Not only do charter schools pull funds from traditional public schools, Cassano contends, but they deplete human resources as well, attracting the most highly motivated students and involved parents in the city. This phenomenon, he says, often contributes to racial imbalances within charter schools.

But Cassano’s anti-charter argument, while common enough, fails to tell the whole story. 88 percent of Common Ground students are minorities, a number similar to those of New Haven’s non-charter public schools: Wilbur Cross and Hill House High School educate 90 and 98 percent minorities, respectively. Common Ground does possess a devoted parent population, and its student body often arrives at the school better-prepared than their Wilbur Cross or Hill House peers—students who end up in a charter school are 20 percent more likely to have attended pre-kindergarten programs than their public, non-charter school peers. But state statistics from 2002 show that charter school parents participate in “limited” volunteering at their children’s schools, if at all. In fact, the charter school population tends to be of lower income and lower family education history than that of regular public schools, and charter schools receive less per-pupil funding than their regular counterparts. But Tom Murphy, the state’s educational spokesman, insists that of all Connecticut parents, those considering charter schools are among the most invested in their children’s education.

According to the Connecticut Department of Education in 2002, “charter schools were not having an easily discernible positive or negative impact on traditional public schools”; if anything, competition between charter and local district schools might have led to mutual progress. Tom Murphy maintains that “there is a place for charter schools…..but they’re not for everyone.” Connecticut’s 18 charters are slim pickings compared to states like Arizona or Florida, which have twenty times as many. Murphy notes that charters are necessary for “choice” in education, though he acknowledges the exclusion inherent in these smaller schools. While charter schools can cull the best students from a pool of applicants, “neighborhood schools have the responsibility to educate all children who walk through their doors.”

Because property taxes pay for public schools, Connecticut’s wealthiest children will always be at an advantage. With teachers in Greenwich making $20,000 more yearly than their New Haven counterparts, the achievement gap in low-income communities is unsurprising. Last year, just over 60 percent of New Haven eighth-graders scored “at/above proficiency” on the math portion of the Connecticut Mastery Test, as opposed to 90 percent of students in the nearby suburb of Branford.

Common Ground, however, seeks an economically diverse student body, and 15 percent of its students hail from the suburbs. Wilcox, Tolman, Barton, and their colleagues hope that in comprehending the effect of “place” on their lives and educations, their students will be able to establish a “common ground” across economic, racial, and geographic lines.

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