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At Common Ground, A School-Wide Family Rallies Around Teacher Cuts

Lucy Gellman | April 26th, 2022

At Common Ground, A School-Wide Family Rallies Around Teacher Cuts

Culture & Community  |  Education & Youth  |  Arts & Culture  |  New Haven Schools  |  Common Ground  |  West Rock

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Common Ground was the school where Emerson Zecena found a family his freshman year. It was where juinor Andrew Pressley met their first nonbinary role model. It was where Montreal Jonhson got her son the specialized learning plan he needed to succeed academically. And it was where, less than a year ago, teachers celebrated their successful attempt to unionize.

Without those same teachers’ voices, students and parents alike are afraid that the school will lose its moral compass.

Fiery, sometimes tear-flecked testimony stretched over two hours Monday night, as over 200 Common Ground High School students, parents, current and former staff, and alumni packed a monthly board meeting over Zoom to protest the non-renewal of four teacher contracts at the school. Over a contentious four hours, it often seemed that the school's social justice, student-centered mission was in direct conflict with the plan that its board and leadership was proposing for the next fiscal year.

It came just hours after Common Ground students walked out of class to protest the non-renewals, letters for which were issued over the school's spring vacation last week.

At the heart of the meeting was a debate over whether the non-renewals were tied to teachers’ 62-8 vote to unionize last year. School leadership has maintained that it is not. Monday's attendees overwhelmingly believe that it is. Non-renewal letters went out last week, after the union’s first round of collective bargaining.

CommonGroundBoard42527By the end of the night, members of the public were speaking over board members and chatting with such alacrity that dozens of comments appeared within seconds of each other. In turn, board members found themselves asking whether they were moving too fast to vote. When they ultimately did, angry comments—and a few notes of gratitude—filled the chat.

The four educators, all of whom received non-renewal notices last week, include art teacher Allison Hornak, math teacher Rikki Brown, support staffer and math teacher Leonardo Cisija and English teacher Win Vitkowsky. In addition to the four teachers, seven additional staff members have received letters that their contracts may not be renewed. Together, that amounts to almost a quarter of the school's faculty.   

“The Leadership team will be contacting your union representatives to discuss how this reduction should be implemented, and therefore, no final decisions regarding how this reduction will impact your employment status for the next fiscal year have been made,” read a letter from one of the seven members contacted, who asked the Arts Paper to withhold their name. “However, it is possible that your position will be eliminated depending on how this reduction is implemented. Accordingly, this letter is intended to notify you that you may not be employed next year.”

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The decision comes months after teachers voted 62-8 to become part of UAW 2110, and less than two weeks after the union entered bargaining with the administration. Many of the teachers, students, parents, and alumni who spoke Monday pointed to the non-renewal as a direct retaliatory action. Both Executive Director Monica Maccera-Filppu and High School Director Cherry Pacquette-Emmanuel have maintained that the decision not to renew contracts is entirely financial.

"I have been at Common Ground for 17 years and I am still left shocked - to both be removed from an administrative role at a school that I have helped build over the years, to the SEs [special educators] and teachers who are in a similar place," wrote Amy Champagne, a veteran English teacher at the school who received a letter last week. "It is not our new admin team who played a role in where we are today - I urge the board to pause these non-renewals and truly investigate what is truly going on."

The board ultimately voted to approve the non-renewals. The decision, which some board members said they felt “boxed into,” received seven affirmative votes, three "no" votes, and three abstentions.

"This Is Not A Witch Hunt"

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Multiple times during Monday's meeting, Maccera-Filppu said that the non-renewals—which were announced to staff only last week—come directly from a shift in the school's academic and financial priorities. In the next fiscal year, Common Ground will lose over $400,000 of federal Covid-19 relief funding that it has used to grow its operating budget over the past two years. At the same time, it is working to add more special education and English language learning teachers.

The New Haven Ecology Project—which encompasses both the school and adjoining farm programs and nature-based learning programs—originally received $808,870 in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding in April 2020. An additional $69,000 came from other federal Covid-19 relief funds. The school did not provide a detailed breakdown of that funding at any point during Monday night's meeting. In an interview with the Middletown Press in 2020, Maccera-Filppu has said that funding covered resources including laptops, accessible outdoor learning spaces, and extra weekly cleaning.

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In the upcoming fiscal year, Maccera-Filppu and Pacquette-Emmanuel have proposed a staffing structure that brings the math department from seven and a half teachers down to just three, reduces English from five teachers to four, reduces art from two to one, and adds a music teacher. In addition, they plan to add one position for special education. Noting that "this is not a witch hunt," and "this has nothing to do with unionizing,” Pacquette-Emmanuel said that the special education position is especially important as the school takes on more students in need to individualized education plans (IEPs).

Ultimately, Maccera-Filppu said, the four teachers who received letters were those without tenure. She added that the board vote was in keeping with Connecticut state statutes, which state that charter school contracts must be finalized before the end of an organization's fiscal year.

"I don’t know what the impact would be of not renewing these folks tonight," she said. "It's challenging and difficult no matter what."

"I'm Asking You Not To Fire Me"

WinVFrom the beginning of public testimony, those who had come to speak painted a very different portrait of the school, where teachers were being directly punished for unionizing.  Speaking early in the night, support educator Stefan Christensen noted that staff numbers before the pandemic were 34.4—very close to the 34.8 they are now, two academic years into Covid-19. Defending his colleagues, he called the school “a picture of complete fiscal mismanagement," where money was more likely to go to power washing the walls than supporting new staff initiatives.

As they testified one by one, all four educators facing contract non-renewal argued for their jobs—and the students who walk into their classrooms each day. Pulling up a "Resume In Pictures” (read it here) Vitkowsky chronicled a decade of service at the school. Initially hired to teach "graffiti vandalism" after school in 2010, Vitkowsky grew his footprint to student journalism, began to supervise capstone projects, and spearheaded courses in English and Black History. Materials from his initial club, ranging from student-made art to visits to local graffiti walls, are now part of the tenth grade curriculum.

"DON'T fire me," read the final slide of the presentation, from which he read quickly during an allotted two minutes. "DON'T fire my colleagues. KEEP promises you made to staff. NEGOTIATE with our union in good faith."

Hornak, a vocal proponent of unionizing who has been at the school for five years, identified themselves quickly as "someone you are voting on tonight." During half a decade at the school, they not only have built out the visual arts curriculum, but also worked to make their classroom a safe and supportive space for all students. When their work is dedicated to "taking action to end cyclical harm," they said, not renewing teacher contracts feels like the antithesis of that. 

In the comments, Hornak had their own cheering section. "PRO MX ALLISON !!!!," wrote junior Jeremiah Godley. "MX. ALLISON!!!!! <3" wrote Zecena, who is currently a student at the school. "Love to see a nonbinary teacher at CG!" added an attendee named Miranda.

Andrew Pressley, who is a junior at the school, praised Hornak as a role model far beyond the classroom. In a previous interview with the Arts Paper, they said that Hornak's classroom is where they go when they are feeling unsafe or unsupported at the school. To have a teacher they can refer to as Mx.—as opposed to Ms. or Mr.—makes their future feel more possible. 

"I’m non binary and they were the first non binary adult I had and were very accepting of my identity and always had assisted me when mental health got too much," Pressley wrote. "They always helped me with my work as well."

Cisija, who teaches calculus at the school, recalled discovering Common Ground as a camper years ago, when he was in middle school. He fell in love with it, attending the school, soaking up its focus on nature and student-centered learning, and returning to teach in 2018. Initially hired as a support educator, he became a calculus instructor in August 2020.

In part, he said, he came back to support students in whom he saw a version of his younger self. It's for them that he shows up fully every day.

Well before he was back as a staff member, “Some of my darkest years happened at Common Ground," he said. "I can safely say if it weren’t for Common Ground Ground, I wouldn't be here today."

Brown described the shock that she felt receiving the letter during spring vacation, when she was spending time with family she hadn't seen in years. After years of teaching in West Haven, "joining Common Ground has encompassed everything I looked for in a school," she said. She asked "that our family be kept whole," pointing to the mental and emotional damage that non-renewals may cause to faculty and staff and to the students in their educational care.

"We Are A Big Family"

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Over and over, fellow attendees pointed to how at odds with the school's mission the move to reduce faculty seemed. Since it was founded as the The New Haven Ecology Project (NHEP) in 1990, Common Ground has had a history of rich experimentation, using both nature and the history of social justice as its classroom. Before it even had a building, teachers were experimenting with programs in West Rock Park, which currently sits beside the school's Springside Avenue home.

On its website, it lists learning, leadership, joy and sustainable change among its core values. Its homepage greets viewers with the cheery, bolded slogan “We Are More Powerful Together.” In the past two years, it has used that same spirit of experimentation to move students outdoors and keep them learning in person during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Emily Schmidt, who teaches chemistry and physics at the school, arrived on Zoom with charts showing student enrollment and teaching staff in September 2018, February 2020, April 2022 and the projected next fiscal year. On screen, student enrollment numbers went gradually up as staff numbers plummeted. Schmidt pointed to a teaching ratio that would go from 7:1 to 10:1. For her, she said, the math around letting teachers go simply didn't add up.

Leslie Blatteau, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers and a social studies instructor at Metropolitan Business Academy, lambasted school administrators for using the “taking points of Amazon and Starbucks” as they prepared for the next fiscal year. She pointed to the non-renewal as a direct retaliatory action for unionizing, citing a nationwide teacher shortage that has already taken a toll on New Haven’s schools. “We the community are left to wonder, ‘How did we get here?’” she said.   

CommonGroundBoard4252Current and former staff, alumni and parents of students and kids in NHEP’s well-loved  “nature year” program reflected on how teachers have helped build their children’s self-confidence.  Jesse Delia, who managed environmental leadership programs at the school through 2018, reminded board members that “Common Ground only exists because of the people who make it up.”

Others made their testimony feel more personal, intimate. Johnson, whose son received academic support at the school, said she broke down in tears when she heard the news. Westvillian and Working Families Party organizer Luis Luna recalled how quickly Common Ground opened its farm to the Semilla Collective in early 2020, when it needed to pack boxes of food for community members reeling from the pandemic.

Parent Jolene, who gave only her first name, recalled how Morales would check in on her and her daughter during the isolation of remote learning and quarantine to make sure they were okay. Common Ground alumni Alicea Vazquez, GiGi Rivera and Stephanie Torres—who graduated in 2003, 2014, and 2015 respectively—all used the word “family” multiple times to describe the school.

“I just think what has happened is the exact opposite of what Common Ground is,” said Torres, fighting back tears that ultimately came. “I hope that you will reconsider.”

Zecena recalled arriving at the school “as a timid, frightened and overwhelmed freshman,” worried that his lived experience would not be reflected on campus. Then he walked into Melvin “Mr. Mo” Morales’ math classroom. Over the next years, Mr. Mo, Hornak, and fellow teachers taught Zecena much more than equations—they encouraged students “to use our voices for good and enact the necessary change that we believe in.”

Now, Zecena was speaking up for them.

“Thank you Emerson. We miss you. So proud of you​​,” Hornak wrote in the chat.

"I Feel Boxed In"

After public testimony and before voting, board members voiced several additional concerns, from student and community morale to the vote's potential effect on fundraising during the upcoming Great Give. Many noted the tension they felt between non-renewal of contracts and simultaneous, overwhelming support of teachers whose jobs were on the chopping block. Because Common Ground's next fiscal year begins on May 1, Maccera-Filppu said, they had to leave the meeting with a vote.

"I’m concerned by our barreling through this," Charlie Negaro, Sr. said. He pointed to the hours of testimony he and fellow board members had just heard. "Students, faculty members, parents are striking at the very heart of who we are."

Board members and teaching artist Beth Klingher pointed to the near-gutting of the math department, where three teachers would be working with over 200 high school students. Noting that she felt “boxed-in,” she suggested that if the board voted not to renew, it could always vote to hire the teachers back.

Errol Saunders, who teaches history and leads the Pathfinder summer program at Hopkins School, tried to balance his concerns with the meeting's legal requirements.

"I think for me, in terms of what’s required by the law, I have no qualms with that," Saunders said. "Where I do echo Charlie's sentiments is I think that what the board is being asked to do statutorily is hard given the kind of organization we want to be."

Even as members discussed the need to vote amongst themselves, the chat rarely remained quiet. Board members who ultimately voted in the affirmative include Carly Osborn, Alexis Smith, Errol Saunders, Kyeen (Ky) Andersson, Beth Klingher, Negaro, and board chair Babz Rawls-Ivy. Those who voted against the non-renewals include Abby Roth, Joseph Melendez, and student representative Christopher Albert. Those who abstained include Gioia Connell, Deloris Vaughn, and Peter Ludwig.

"Common Ground will not survive if you go through with this decision, I hope you really understand that," wrote alum Alfia Ansari, who became a New Haven Promise scholar during high school and went on to the University of Connecticut.

"New Haven and the community will remember this vote," added Mark Firla.