Nation’s oldest environmental charter school breaks new ground in climate education

Common Ground High School students learn to change the climate for the better

Staff reporter

Courtesy of Joel Tolman

The 10th grade curriculum at Common Ground Charter High School in New Haven, Connecticut is anything but ordinary.

Students in Rebecca Van Tassell’s 10th grade environmental science class build electric cars – research materials and turn in their sketches at the end of class. They describe their plans, which will reuse materials from their homes. One student car will use CD-ROM discs for wheels, while another car will be made from a hot glue gun. Student Jackelian Brown will draw parts on cardboard, then put them together and paint on the headlights to make her car. His classmate Jayden Carty thinks about where to put his battery – top or bottom of the chassis. A nearby student said they were going to “design some stuff and make it work”.

“Having [students] think about how these large-scale changes we’re seeing really come down to the individual properties of molecules, that’s the cool science stuff that excites me,” Van Tassell said. “We can take action to make things better for people and work for justice in how we address climate change. So I hope they learn a little science and come away with a sense of hope.

Next term, 10th graders will attend Dan Jordan’s English class to learn how they can use storytelling to educate people about climate change. It’s a typical afternoon for students at Common Ground, the nation’s oldest charter school dedicated to environmental and social justice.

Materials for the electric car project come from Engineering Tomorrow, a non-profit organization that promotes engineering education in schools and champions diversity in the field. As students plan their designs, Van Tassell reminds them of the principles of electricity, making sure they have metal-to-metal connections and remembering that electricity must pass through a conductor.

“I can tell how to make better use of solar panels,” said Sylvia Cruz, a student in Van Tassell’s environmental science class. “I feel like it could help fight climate change because I didn’t burn fossil fuels and cause more pollution in the air.”

Environmental science students work in Common Ground’s Springside building, which is designed with a rooftop solar panel, geothermal heating and cooling panel, and sustainably harvested wood frame.

In their social studies class earlier in the day, 10th graders learned how local, state and federal governments can each respond to climate change. When the students then had English with Jordan, he asked the class when they arrived to write down what they knew about climate change.

The answers said it was bad. The ocean is rising and affecting animal habitats. Air quality is deteriorating due to car exhaust. It’s very hot so there are more forest fires.

Grade 10 students in Jordan’s class have heard a lot about climate change from their families. One student said she heard stories of ‘when it snowed more’ from older family members, and another mentioned that since she was ‘little’ her mother took her to protests against climate change and told him to recycle.

Next, they analyze the rhetorical strategies used in a Daily Beast article titled “How can you get people to care about climate apocalypse? In the coming weeks, they will read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the book chosen for New Haven’s One City: One Read campaign this year.

“For the most part, I think they seemed pretty interested in [the unit] so far,” Jordan said. “We talked about Afrofuturism and how the authors [like Butler] using literature to reimagine the past and somehow reimagine the future as well. It’s a tough subject to talk about because it’s hard to frame it in a way that doesn’t really feel overwhelming and hopeless, but also to be realistic about the seriousness of the situation.

The Climate Change Unit began with a panel of community members – including city engineers and New Haven Climate Movement Fellows – who shared why climate change matters to them and how they found their respective paths to change.

This climate change unit is the third of four that make up Common Ground’s interdisciplinary Grade 10 core curriculum, which was launched five years ago with community support. Earlier this academic year, the first unit focused on New Haven Stories – learning the history of New Haven through the stories of residents. The second unit focused on change for environmental and social justice, and the final unit will focus on public health issues.

“For most people, we don’t live in a disciplinary silo,” Van Tassell said. “We go to work every day, and we come home and our lives are complex and interdisciplinary. And so our teaching should be too.

Common Ground began classes in August 1997.


Charlotte Hughes reports on climate and environmental issues in New Haven. Originally from Columbia, South Carolina, she is a freshman at Branford College majoring in English.