The Common Ground High School in New Haven will celebrate its ninth graduation next month. When they first enroll many students are below grade level in reading or math, but by the time they're seniors almost all are accepted to college. The school's focus on environmental studies helps draw students into learning.
A rooster crowing isn't exactly the sound you'd expect to hear in a high school in the city, but at the Common Ground High School the roosters, chickens and turkeys have something to teach.
"We saw some growth with feathers and a beak and eyes."
16-year old Monifa Jones, a sophomore from West Haven, explains what her class in embryology learned when they cracked open freshly laid chicken eggs.
"We wanted to see the development from when we got the eggs to how big they would get. And after that we let them hatch on their own."
"My chicken's Magic, the best chicken on earth."
That's Jones' classmate,17-year old Stephen Murray. He's become very fond of the chickens, especially his own, but he didn't start out that way.
"They're not as nasty as I thought. They just lay eggs and that's about it."
Biology teacher David Edgeworth says when the students first come to the school they don't want anything to do with the farm animals or the school's garden especially if it means getting their clothes dirty,
"By their second year, third year they're knee deep in horse manure. They're composting they're working with animals. The transformation is just amazing."
But most don't choose this school because of its organic garden or the emphasis on environmental studies or its location next to a state park. They come for something that's rare in public education: small classes.
What kind of observations are we going to make? Tye."
In a class called "Environmental Justice" the teacher, 54-year old Tricia Johnson, who used to be a forester, is leading students through a series of experiments to see how seeds and plants react to pollution.
"I'm spraying the paper towel and the seeds with salt water."
While 15-year old Dahiana Baez sprays salt on a handful of seeds her lab partner sprays vinegar to simulate acid rain. Baez explains what they want to find out.
"To see what effect will have on the seed."
At a desk nearby 16-year old Carlen Rey is counting out seeds that he'll plant for his experiment. Rey says he likes this school because the teachers notice what's going on with students, both in and out of school.
"It's sort of like an extension from home, but it's a free open learning place where people actually care about learning and helping you learn actual things you can use later on in life."
Many of the students come from families where few have attended college. As many as a third of Common Ground students enter below grade level in reading or math. But within one year, these same students who haven't progressed much before, advance one to one and a half years. By the time they're seniors ninety percent get into college.
Tricia Johnson, who heads the science department, says with 12 teachers and 150 students the teachers get to know all the students.
"For some of them it is the most grounded place that they have. The place they can come every day. They have expectations about what their behavior should be and how we will treat them."
And the students also learn how to treat the world. Common Ground Founder and Director Oliver Barton.
"We need people to have healthy and wonderful lives in cities in order to live sustainably on this planet."
The school integrates the idea of sustainability into every aspect of school life.
The cafeteria is serving up broccoli grown in the school's garden along with chili, cheese and bacon. But some students hanker for more familiar food.
"I want some pizza. I want some chicken."
Even if 16-year old Tammela Laney doesn't finish her lunch it won't be a complete waste. Students are taught to compost all food scraps. And they recycle everything they can. But Oliver Barton says rather than preaching to students about what's bad for the environment, the school starts with the students' own experience.
"We try to understand how they see their world and their neighborhoods their communities even beyond New Haven when they first come in and build their environmental understanding off of that."
Inside the classroom Tricia Johnson asks her students about the broader implications of their scientific experiments.
"So we're looking specifically at the effects of pollution on plants. Why would that be an environmental justice issue?"
Oliver Barton says the school tries to impart a sense of responsibility.
"They need to take ownership of their own learning, for their behavior, for understanding their own learning style, for setting their own goals for working hard in school."
But how does the school get students to take ownership?
"They need to see the results of their effort. And that comes in little pieces. Even with one class period it's very important students recognize there is an objective for that time of learning and that if they pay attention and struggle and question and think by the end of that period they will have achieved that objective."
Back out in the hen house 18 year old Cynthia Cardone is shoveling sawdust and points out a bird with a crazy headdress of black and white feathers.
"What's that? Is that a chicken?"
"That's a Polish Top Hat."
Cardone not only has learned to identify chicken breeds, like the Polish Top Hat, she has learned a lesson from taking care of the farm animals.
"Just to know they give us something and we give them something back."
That simple idea, that we're interconnected, is at the heart of the school's mission. But it's wrapped around the bigger goal of helping students achieve.
See more pictures of the Common Ground High School go to WNPR's Flickr Site.