By. Joel Tolman, Director of Impact and Engagement at Common Ground High School, Urban Farm, and Environmental Education Center


Last spring, when the 37 members of Common Ground High School’s class of 2017 walked across the stage at graduation, all could hold their heads high. Every one of these graduates had gained admission into college – whether to our local community college in New Haven, one of Connecticut’s state universities, or another private or public university.


Before receiving their diploma, each of these graduates had passed another milestone, as well. Each had stood before an audience of families and peers, and a panel of our staff, to defend a portfolio showing their growth into a powerful environmental and community leader.


The belief that all students can learn at high levels, grow into powerful leaders, and continue to learn and lead after high school is at the core of Common Ground, the nation’s oldest environmentally themed charter high school. The success of each graduating class is perhaps the ultimate measure of whether we are living out this belief. Are these young people thriving and growing? Are they travelling along pathways to careers and lives that they love, and that sustain themselves, their families, our communities, and the planet? Are they growing into increasingly powerful agents of sustainable change?


Sitting in on students’ leadership defenses last spring, I could not help but feel optimistic about the answers to those big, daunting questions.


Define Leadership for Yourself

During their defenses, each senior started by sharing a little bit about themselves, and then laid out their own, homegrown definition of leadership. There is a rationale behind this: That every student can grow into a powerful leader, AND that leadership can take on many different forms.


source: Jesse Delia


Keilly, an incredible community organizer and artist, described being able to navigate multiple worlds as a key part of how she defines her leadership:


I can be fun but also serious. I can kick it with students but also sit in meetings with grownups. I’m bilingual. I’ve been a student and a teacher’s assistant, having to balance a religious family but also feeling free enough to show my artistic side. But it can also be difficult to live two lives in one body. Luckily, I’ve managed to surpass obstacles that allow my two lives be free with structure. Both my life as an activist and a participant let me excel as a leader.”


Erik, another member of last year’s graduating class, saw leadership differently:


“Being able to be heard without speaking often is a skill. Actions speak louder than words, being able to lead by example is a skill leaders have in their arsenal. A leader doesn’t need to be the person to give orders, but completes goals and objectives themselves without having to be told. As much as we try and plan our lives it almost never goes as planned. The future holds great mystery, but someone who is able to work through any adversity the future holds is a leader.”  


Delesia’s definition got at the multi-faceted nature of leadership even more directly:


“Leadership to me can mean a lot of things. It can mean a political leader pursuing a passionate cause. It can be an explorer cutting a path in a jungle for the rest of the group to follow. Leadership means setting an example for him/herself and other people, setting directions, building an inspirating vision and creating something new. Leadership is the ability to adapt the setting so everyone feels empowered to contribute creatively to solving the problems.”


Few students arrive at Common Ground with leadership as a core piece of their identity, or with sophisticated conceptions of leadership like those shared above. But research conducted in partnership with the nonprofit New Knowledge indicates that, between 9th and 12th grade, the vast majority of our students come to see themselves as agents of change (see graphs below).



Curate Your Own Growth as a Learner and Leader

For members of the class of 2017, portfolio defenses were a singular opportunity to put together four years of growth toward their definitions of leadership. For Common Ground staff like me, these defenses were a chance to hear from students about what mattered most in their four years of high school. There is something magic about listening to young people identify the moments in which they have experienced the most growth, been most successful, stretched themselves the most, felt most powerful.


In their written portfolios, each student honed in on five experiences – transformational moments and long-term commitments, in and out of school. In their oral defenses, they spoke about just two – forcing them to further curate their most powerful experiences.


Here is a taste of what they shared.


Academic experiences that challenged them, and supports to help them grow. Students’ portfolios contained nothing about Common Ground’s big gains in SAT scores. Nor did they highlight growth on NWEA’s Measures of Academic Progress, even though Common Ground’s 9th graders last year made more progress as readers than 99% of their peers nationally.


While not a single student cited test scores as evidence of their growth, all these seniors described learning experiences that stretched and supported them. Eight students described stepping up to the challenge of AP Language & Composition, and the new ability to write and reason powerfully they developed through this course. Tyrese, for instance, was one of four seniors who described learning to advocate for themselves and take responsibility for their own learning in math courses:


“At the start of Math for College and Career Readiness, I was not doing too well. I’d say that the most challenging portion was being on a serious grind, and then finally getting to a new module, and it is math that you have never learned before. It just stumps you and it knocks you out of that mindset, and suddenly you can’t focus anymore. There were often times where I would just stop my work, look around the room and think to myself, ‘I can’t do this, this is too much work, I’ll never catch up with anybody else.’ I wouldn’t let those thoughts stop me because I knew deep down that no matter what, I would pass this math class because I wanted to go on to become an engineer. Now towards the end of MCCR, I am farther in modules than I previously thought possible. This is how leaders act: persevering through difficult times.”


Authentic learning and leadership opportunities, engaging students in real work, tackling social justice and environmental challenges. While some students’ portfolios shared traditional classroom experiences, the learning opportunities that seemed to stand out the most involved real-world challenges.


Yasdira, for instance, reached back to her 9th grade pre-algebra class, reflecting on a project in which she and her classmates calculated the amount of garlic they needed to plant to meet Common Ground’s needs for the year, and how much area on our urban farm that would require. The lessons Yasdira learned went far beyond math:


“This project helped me learn how garlic follows the sunlight in order to grow …”


“Something I noticed when we were done was that to be a leader, no matter if you fit in or not you have to make sure your team is comfortable doing the job …”


“Xavier and I were picked to make a video of our hard work and because we were the most excited about our learning.”


One of the most empowering aspects of the leadership portfolio is that students can choose to “get credit” for experiences beyond the classroom walls. For instance, 45% of students identified paid employment through Common Ground’s Green Jobs Corps – planting street trees, leading environmental education programs, creating school gardens – as one of their two most significant leadership opportunities. And many students, like Alex, chose to focus on learning and leadership opportunities they had created for themselves:


“For much of the school year I took time to get into digital restoration and sound mixing with videos … Keeping in mind the kind of lengths that our technology today can reach, I knew that I could be capable of turning old valued cartoons like La Linea into stunning quality and make it presentable again … When I saw how much attention it had gotten, I knew that the effort I had put into this was being paid off …. The same went for the other things I worked on such as music videos of The Beatles that were very poor in quality … Over the summer, I became really interested in animation and graphical design which led to making some promotional films as a hobby.”


An inclusive, supportive school environment where students could be themselves. Students’ portfolios included many remarkable accomplishments. For me, though, the most striking thing about this year’s portfolio defenses was the vulnerability, humanity, and resilience that students demonstrated.


Many seniors spoke openly about trauma – losing family members, grappling with depression – and about how they had grown in the midst of this trauma. Two members of the class of 2017 used their portfolio defenses as an opportunity to come out to their families – a testament to their own courage, and to the space that defenses created for truth telling and compassion.


And that space was a uniquely loving one. Young men stood up to tell other young men how much they loved and respected each other. Students in younger grades shared how much they looked up to seniors. Parents, aunts, grandparents, nieces, and siblings all cried and hugged students when they received word that they had passed their defenses.


Mobilize This Growing Leadership Capacity to Build a More Just and Sustainable World

Whatever experiences students chose to share in their defenses, they were challenged to reflect on a common set of questions: How do these experiences demonstrate growth and mastery of Common Ground’s environmental leadership standards – a homegrown document that aligns with 21st century skills frameworks? What evidence do you have that these experiences contributed to your leadership growth over time? How do these experiences contribute to sustainable change, in your life and the world?


This last question is the one with which students seem to struggle most. The idea of creating change that lasts – that builds a more just and equitable world, now and in the future – often feels just on the edge of possibility for our seniors.


But, as I listened to students present last spring, I heard plenty of evidence that these young people are helping to build a more just and sustainable world. Some of this evidence comes from the last thing seniors put in their portfolios, their capstone projects – identifying a social justice issue that hits close to home for them, doing research, and taking steps that lead to change in their community. I know from years past that these projects often really do result in sustainable change: The beautiful “we should all be feminists” painting that was the first piece of artwork hung in our new school building; the restoration site that students are now paid to steward along a stream across from Common Ground’s campus; and the community gardens and street trees they have helped to plant across the city.


There is no doubt in my mind that the class of 2017 has created ripples that will continue to spread. One example: Early in her research process, Jalyn’s project on healthy soul food brought her to a lecture at Yale on African American foodways – where she found herself, one of the only people of color in the room, being “taught” about her own culture by a white undergraduate. By the end of the year – after doing extensive research, spending many hours on Common Ground’s urban farm, and publishing a cookbook of her own – Jalyn found the roles reversed, as she gave a talk in that same student lecture series at Yale.


I am not sure whether Jalyn or her classmates would have described themselves as “sustainability natives” as they walked across the graduation stage. But they made clear in their portfolios, on surveys (see the graph below), and in many other ways, that they are committed to the environment and social justice, now and in the future.



Want to learn more about Common Ground’s leadership portfolios? Visit a growing toolkit of resources at


About the Author

Joel Tolman is Director of Impact and Engagement at Common Ground — a high school, urban farm, and environmental education center in New Haven, Connecticut. Joel came to Common Ground as a classroom teacher in 2003 after five years of work on national school change and youth leadership development initiatives. In Joel’s classes, students explored and documented New Haven’s neighborhoods, monitored urban air quality, created bilingual oral histories of community elders, secured start-up funding for small social ventures, and presented policy proposals to state legislators. Since moving out of the classroom, Joel has helped to lead Common Ground’s school-wide environmental leadership strategy, helped to launch and steer city-wide environmental campaigns, built and stewarded community partnerships, and directed the Teaching Our Cities project.  You can reach Joel at