MORRISTOWN, NJ - The expression “don’t judge a book by its cover” is apropos for the Unity Charter School in Morristown. Set off in a nondescript building, at the end of a street in an office building, this hidden jewel of a school is a haven for educators and children.
The K-8 school has an enrollment of 220 children, with a waiting list of 120 more students, is staffed by an enthusiastic staff of highly qualified teachers. The most intriguing part of the school in talking with the staff and administration is that everyone there has a vested interest in the success of the school.
Absent are the restrictions of the cookie-cutter education system that lacks vision and progressive thinking. Instead, the strong leadership of Executive Director Connie Sanchez guides the building; and she is well versed and passionate about her role in shaping our children’s minds and futures. She brings intelligent thought and progressive thinking to her school, as she holds her staff and students to a high standard. While in her presence it was clear that she is in tune with the operations of the school, and ensures the core content standards are being met and that the children entrusted to her are being challenged daily.
While roaming the building it was clear that students were engaged and being held to the same high standards set by the Department of Education. Furthermore, today marked the kickoff of a school-wide reading and writing initiative. “For the Love of Reading” (FLOR) is a celebration of literacy that fosters student reading and writing by having guest readers come into the school and share with the students either original works, or their favorite stories and books. Today was geared toward the lower grades as the attendees read aloud to an attentive, and active audience.
Teacher Kimberly McCurrin, who helped spearhead and lead the FLOR initiative, is a burst of energy and has passion for her craft. She was more than excited at the presence of her guest readers, and her joy was infectious. In a school like Unity, a teacher with McCurrin’s enthusiasm is praised and encouraged while providing the environment to which a person of her ilk can thrive with her students, not just among them.
The school’s mission statement says it all and was on full display during today’s event:
“The mission of Unity Charter School is to integrate the principles of sustainability, ecology, and diversity in the educational and learning experiences of our students and community in a way that celebrates the beauty of the planet and all its inhabitants.”
To prove this point Farmer Shaun, who is a consultant with the school, performs many hands on lessons in the field with Unity’s students. He works for the non-profit organization, Grow it Green Morristown on Hazel Street. He teaches the students about sustainability and gives them hands on, real world experience that tie directly into learning. Teaching science and ecology in a classroom is the standard in public schools, but nothing can replace the interaction with a real farmer at his “office” while students literally roll up their sleeves and get dirty with the subject matter. Again, Unity’s mission comes to life in the classroom and beyond.
Shaun was invited to read books today and one of his choices was a story of the Monarch Butterfly in which the metamorphosis and migration of the butterfly is told. The book is titled, A Butterfly is Patient, and was a perfect tie between the environment while serving as a metaphor for children to see the development and struggle of life through nature.
Mayor Tim Dougherty, was in attendance, and as usual, pleasantly added some panache to an already exciting event while reading his favorite kid’s book, Mayor for a Day, by Carl Sommer. The book’s protagonist is a little boy who earns the chance to be mayor for a day. Once in power the little boy declares that there are “no more rules” to follow in his town, which leads to certain chaos. The mayor seemed right at home reading to the eager and smiling faces, while answering questions and handing out autographs. The purpose of the activity was to bring a real life experience and real worldview to the value of reading. This was easily accomplished by having Mayor Dougherty attend, who took the time to interact, and model the telling of a story that had a good moral. Authentic experiences that make an impression upon children is what Unity Charter School focuses on with activities such as “For the Love of Reading”.
The mayor said it best, “If you want to be a part of a community, then you have to be active in the community. If you want to affect change then you need to be involved.”
His actions are proof of his words. He praised the school for its efforts and its ability to work and think outside the box of traditional education while fostering learning. His presence marked the importance of reading and literacy to the children of Unity as he happily gave out autographs admittedly, for the first time to students in a school.
As the Mayor was reading, Jennifer Carcich, a teacher with 20 years experience in both public and charter schools, explained to me that the next event in November will host a former board member, Ronni Blaidsell, author of Ruby Reinvented, who will come and address the upper grades. Each marking period will have a highlighted event and speaker/author to promote literacy and the value of reading. Students are required to complete a grade level appropriate culminating assignment at the end of each FLOR experience. Blaidsell’s own child graduated from Unity, and like many of the staff, Mrs. Blaidsell had a vested interest in the school’s success. While she now resides in Maine, she is making the time to come down from her new residence and give back to the school she helped build.
As the ultimate real world learning experience, Margery Cuyler, author of over 50 children’s books, came to Unity and read from some of her best works such as Skeleton Hiccups, and Bullies Never Win. Cuyler was having as much fun as Farmer Shaun and Mayor Dougherty, with the smiling faces of Unity’s student body.
In speaking with her, she revealed that she is passionate about her craft of writing and the value of reading in the minds of young children. The fairy tale and story telling should not get lost in the age of technology was a point that she made. The creativity of fiction and then its translation to both spoken word and finally being published is something that should not be undervalued or taken for granted.
Cuyler also believes that storytelling, folklore, and fairy tales opens up play and social interaction among children. To move the buried faces in technological devices into the real world is something that should not be lost, and reading and writing are the keys to innovation and creativity.
As Cuyler read her books with the enthusiasm matching the children’s age, she was the perfect example of how real life learning experiences, coupled with passion and joy, can impact a child’s growth and success for many years to come. It was as if Unity’s mission statement was coming to life right before our eyes.