Unity Charter School, located in a new facility on Evergreen Place in Morris Township, will be holding an Open House on November 18 at 7:00 pm.
The school recently moved from a small building on Speedwell Avenue to a new, 20,000 square foot space on Evergreen Place in Morristown.
In addition to the Kindergarten through 8th grade multi-age classrooms, the new space consists of a designated World Language room, a Science lab, an Art and Performing Arts room, two special education rooms, a multipurpose room, a cafeteria, a full commercial grade kitchen with an award-winning organic and vegetarian lunch program, and administrative offices. The site also provides a large parking area and a school garden.
The expansion gave the school the opportunity to increase its enrollment from 105 to 150 this year. The school will be accepting 180 students next year, as this phased-in approach allows the school to maintain its culture of participation and collaboration among students, teachers, parents, administrators, and the community at large.
A charter school is accountable to the NJ Department of Education to fulfill its charter, improve student achievement, and integrate the NJ Core Curriculum Content Standards into its academic program. Charter schools are encouraged to use different and innovative learning methods in order to improve student learning and achievement. Unity, like all charter schools, is a tuition-free school, and students are chosen through a lottery system. Students from approximately thirty sending districts attend Unity.
Unity Charter School was founded in 1998. Its mission is to teach the importance of protecting and improving the environment by educating students on the principles of sustainability, ecology, and diversity in a way that celebrates and honors this planet and all its inhabitants.
Unity’s small class size and close-knit community allows teachers the opportunity to identify a student’s strengths and weaknesses. Students are evaluated using various assessments, and instructors then develop individual lessons plans that suit each student’s needs.
Michael Braverman’s 7th/8th grade math class exemplifies how individual learning benefits the students. Some students use a textbook as their base curriculum with supplementary critical thinking extension activities, some students are using online algebra programs, and some students are focusing on more basic math skills.
“Because we know our students so well, we can individualize their lesson plans,” says Braverman. “And while we teach the child to where they’re at currently, we can also challenge them on a level they’re comfortable with.”
Seventh grader Charlie Baranski is one of Braverman’s students. Baranski, who is working at a ninth grade math level, has been attending Unity since Kindergarten, and he calls the school “awesome.” When asked what he likes best, Baranski says “I love the math program. I love that there are different groups all working at their own levels. I’m in the algebra group, and my teacher makes it really fun. He really helps us understand what algebra means and how we might use it in the real world.” Baranski’s favorite subjects are math and technology, and he appreciates the fact that the teachers encourage him to work to his full potential.
“One of our biggest strengths is that we’re not a classroom of kids going through a textbook,” says 7th/8th grade teacher Karen Bloch. “We teach individuals. We’re here to help them discover, and how to learn.”
All the teachers at Unity concur that students are part of the process of learning. The children are treated as partners, and that partnership empowers the students to be more invested in their educations. What’s more, the sense of inclusion at Unity means that the students don’t tease each other for their strengths or weaknesses. The students understand that they all work at different levels, and they are taught to help each other in the learning process.
In fact, Unity is more like a family than a typical school. Multi-age interactions are encouraged, and older students are motivated to take responsibility and leadership roles in the school. Students in the upper grades often forego their recess in order to help out the younger grades. School-wide interest groups, such as beading, photography, or theatre, consist of students in grades K-8. In addition to being multi-age, these groups are student-led. Students have the opportunity to choose what interest group they’d like to lead, write a proposal, choose a teacher facilitator, and write the lesson plans.
In addition to interest groups and grade-level academics, students have the opportunity to work on “Personal Learning Plans,” individualized projects of the child’s choosing that are designed to be interdisciplinary. The students use their interests and strengths to work on projects that they enjoy. Some students write their own plays, some design dresses, and some develop new fictional species. All of the projects reinforce reading, writing, math, science, history, or art. “Students are having so much fun learning, they don’t realize that they are actually learning,” says Carolyn Mungo, Unity’s Lead-Person.
A teacher at Unity for ten years before taking on her new position, Mungo adds “At Unity, we take a holistic approach to our students. We don’t necessarily teach students what to think, we teach them how to think.”
Eighth-grader Taylor Smith agrees. “I’m invested in my school projects. Learning is fun here.”
In addition to encouraging students academically, Unity encourages students to grow personally.
“When I came here three years ago, I was shy. I doubted myself,” says Smith. “But Unity lets you have a voice. I don’t feel like I’m a number here. Everyone is so supportive and patient. The school helped me develop my personality, character, and morals. I feel like it’s really helped me come into who I am now.”
Smith is now Co-President of the Student Council. She, along with two representatives from each class, get together monthly to discuss school-wide issues, plan events, and brainstorm ideas. “Student Council is a way for everyone to get their voices heard,” says Smith.
In addition to the Student Council, students school-wide participate in “morning meetings” every day. The “Positive Discipline” approach that the school takes teaches students to understand how their behavior impacts not only themselves, but also others around them. Students are taught to take responsibility for their behavior so that they will make good choices, not only in school, but throughout their lives.
The New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards provide the foundation for Unity’s curriculum. Sustainability and Earth Literacy are integrated into all subjects, and “systems thinking” is encouraged as an extension of students’ natural inquisitiveness.
“The approach we take at Unity is not only between the hours of 8:00 and 2:40,” Mungo says. “The things children learn here are going to carry them through high school and beyond. What they learn here is more valuable than merely memorizing dates, or making it through a textbook. We teach our students to find resources and focus on solutions. We are more than a school; we are a community of learners.”
For more information on Unity Charter School, please visit www.unity-nj.org or call 973-292-1808.