How Common Ground High School supports students and the community during the pandemic

Published on: 
May 15, 2020
Carolyn Yi

In recent years, Common Ground High School in New Haven, Connecticut, has been busy addressing sustainability in an impressive number of areas, all while centering equity and diversity.

From facilitating green career development and offering environmental education opportunities to the community to opening a multipurpose building that received LEED Gold certification, they've gone above and beyond, and the Center for Green Schools has taken notice. In 2019, we presented them with a Green Apple Day of Service award for their creative twist on career day in the form of a speed-networking event.

This past March, we celebrated their consistent modeling of exemplary green school practices on stage at the Green Schools Conference and Expo, presenting them with the Best of Green Schools award in the K–12 School category.

We recently caught up with Joel Tolman, Director of Impact and Engagement at the school, to hear how they've been adjusting to the new normal of life during a global pandemic, and how their work up to this point has equipped them to move forward.

Working through new challenges

Center for Green Schools: Just a couple of months ago, we were celebrating with you and your students on stage at the Green Schools Conference and Expo in Portland, Oregon. We all returned home to a swiftly changing situation. How has Common Ground been addressing the challenges presented by the current pandemic?

Joel Tolman: I feel lucky that school director Liz Cox, students Noor and Dayanara, and I were able to see so many green schools compatriots face to face, right before direct connection became so much harder! Liz is retiring at the end of the year, so I especially appreciated that opportunity to recognize her leadership over the last 20 years.

Like educators around the country, our team had to rebuild school from the ground up, starting in mid-March. I’m so proud of what our students and teachers accomplished in such a short period of time. Staff took off their usual hats related to after-school programs, campus safety or green jobs, and took on new roles as case managers, to make sure our most vulnerable students reconnect and stay connected.

The staff of our urban farm and student support team hooked up with grassroots mutual support groups, and are now delivering a week’s worth of fresh veggies and shelf-stable food every Wednesday to the 50 families that face the greatest food insecurity.

We moved to a distance learning schedule where students are meeting by Zoom twice a week for each of their eight classes, and where there are lots of opportunities for one-on-one sessions with teachers and support educators—students are so hungry to connect with peers and staff. We were lucky that all students already brought Chromebooks to and from school every day, and we have a course management system that students are already at home using. We’re connected to 100% of our students, and some classes regularly have 100% attendance—but our students are struggling to stay motivated and get the work done, like young people everywhere.

Staying committed to sustainability

Center: We've heard a bit from school staff around the country that they're nervous about what the pandemic and ongoing sanitation concerns will mean for the sustainability initiatives (shared tables, reusables, etc.) they had worked so hard to implement. Have similar issues come up at Common Ground, and if so, how are you dealing with them?

Tolman: In truth, most of our energy has been focused on making sure our students are safe, fed, connected and learning. That is our top priority right now.

At the same time, we are learning new ways to keep our commitment to sustainability alive, in ways that respond to this unique moment. There is so much hunger for access to backyard gardening resources right now, so we have figured out how to continue with our big annual vegetable seedling sale in a way where customers and farm staff can keep distance from each other.

There’s a longstanding Common Ground tradition of inviting an Environmental Leader in Residence to join our community for a week each spring, and on Earth Day, we launched that residency with an amazing Zoom conversation with Dr. Thomas Easley—a forester, geneticist, pastor, professor, hip-hop artist, and leader in equity and the environment who works at Yale University, just around the corner from Common Ground.

We recognize, as well, that there will be new opportunities for sustainability in this new world we live in. I really appreciate the conversations I hear among educators and students about what shouldn’t go back to business as usual when we are able to come together. Can we avoid getting back in our cars, after some of us have taken a months-long break from driving? Can we sustain new systems that get fresh, healthy, local foods into the homes of our most vulnerable families, and help families sustain the new home gardens they’ve built?

Common Ground farm team members Deborah Greig and Disha Patel (photo credit: Disha Patel).

Empowering students to be involved

Center: Can you share any stories of student leadership and creativity that have inspired you recently? What have your students taught you?

Tolman: My students are doing so much to keep me sane and hopeful right now. I went down to our drive-through, contactless farmer’s market last weekend, and the first person I saw was Noor, one of the students who presented with us at the Green Schools Conference and Expo. Noor is working at the farmer’s market through our Green Jobs program—after lots of conversations with her, her family and the organization that runs the farmer’s markets, to make sure we are doing so in a way that keeps her and our community healthy. We need to remember that many of our high school students are essential workers—and we have such a responsibility to keep them safe as they play these roles.

We’ve also been interviewing candidates for our new school director, and students are such critical participants in these interviews. It’s so helpful and inspiring to see Sam and Darlenne log onto 7 p.m. Zoom calls, and ask such smart and critical questions of these potential new school leaders, and share such powerful feedback on these candidates.

Watching our seniors rebuild their capstone environmental justice projects is really powerful as well. Gerno and Shawn, two members of the Class of 2020, just used an event that Common Ground helps to organize, the Rock to Rock Earth Day Ride, to raise nearly $2,000 for a scholarship in honor of Chris Franco, a friend and Common Ground graduate who was killed in a hit-and-run accident last summer. Rock to Rock went virtual in the wake of COVID-19, but they got their stuff together anyway, and did something really powerful to keep the memory of their friend alive.

Tips for engaging students and faculty in social justice

Center: We know that community engagement and social equity are integral to all that Common Ground does. What would you say to school leaders and educators who want to do more to center equity and place in their work, but are not sure where to start? As leaders in this area, how is this approach playing out at Common Ground right now?

Tolman: Honestly, it’s hard to be called a leader, when we still feel like we have so much to learn and so much to work on. Three starting points that have helped us:

  1. Read a good article or book, and discuss it with members of your school community. Build your comfort talking about environment and equity together. For instance, a Washington Post article on why some young people of color don’t feel welcomed in the climate change youth movement sparked good conversations. An article in Teaching Tolerance Magazine on cultural relevance and school gardens, “Liberated Roots,” could be a good starting point for discussion. Short stories and novels by Afrofuturist writers like Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin can open up new possibilities (and are great things for students to read, too!). Working with broader frameworks like the Principles of Environmental Justice and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals help our staff and students make the connection between equity and sustainability as well.
  2. Look to your community for expertise and support. Get your faculty out into the neighborhoods that your students call home, to meet with community leaders who are experiencing and working on environmental and social justice. Create a map of your local environment community—focusing on the assets and the challenges, natural and social—and then put this map alongside the standards you want to teach, to look at where they intersect. Invite these community members to plan your projects and units of students, and to act as additional teachers in your classrooms. Pay them when you can, and show up to support them in other ways as well.
  3. Recognize that students can help lead the change. In the lived experiences of our students, social justice and sustainability just can’t be pulled apart from each other. They see those connections, even if some of us struggled to make them as adults. Practically, engaging students in paid and credit-bearing roles helping to re-design curricula has made a huge difference for us.

Curious about Common Ground? You can visit their website, reach out to Tolman via email, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Learn more about Common Ground