Unity Charter School: With Room to Grow

May 2, 2011

Today we welcome a new guest blog series from Dodge grantee Unity Charter School, a tuition-free, public K – 8 charter school in Morris Township. Unity is unique because it combines New Jersey core curriculum requirements with a focus on teaching students the principles of sustainability, ecology and diversity to celebrate and protect the planet and all its inhabitants.

Founded in 1998,  it was among the second cohort of schools to be granted a charter in New Jersey. In the fall of 2010, the school expanded enrollment and relocated to a larger facility at One Evergreen Place in Morris Township.

In the coming weeks, we will hear from a number of perspectives – a parent, a teacher, a student, and a Board Member – and learn about the community this school has built and the remarkable practices it has put into place. Today’s blog post comes from Tanya Seaward, a member of the Board, a parent of three Unity students, and a member of the commUnity since 2007, about the tremendous effort behind their recent move to a much larger space, where they now have room to grow.

Unity Charter School students

Students at the new Unity Charter School

By Tanya Seaward

I was a late joiner to the expansion effort. A doubting Thomas, if you will. In the three years that our family had been part of Unity, I had heard much talk of “expansion,” but nothing more than that. Just idle parking lot chatter. No real action. And the school continued on as always, doing wonderful things in the classroom, but in a cramped facility that it had long outgrown.

In the summer of 2009, a group of parents and Board members formed a new expansion committee. This group was energized, and they gave themselves a goal of one year to find a new location. I knew that previous expansion efforts had not been successful (high cost of real estate in Morristown and the Township, our limited start-up funds, restrictive charter school financing regulations), and I really didn’t expect the current effort to be any different.

My perspective changed in November 2009. The Expansion Committee had made a presentation to the Board of Trustees, in which they had identified the “target” – One Evergreen Place. The building, although located in an urban/industrial area, had a few key things going for it. First, it was zoned for school use, which would save months—years even—and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to change the zoning use.

Second, about half of the building had been used previously as a preschool. We thought we could use a significant portion of the existing layout, which would save time and renovation costs, which fit our budget (miniscule) and our mission perfectly. And while the existing room configurations were not always ideal, (our architect described some rooms as “bowling alleys”), we were used to making compromises. After all, in the old school, students ate lunch in the hallway, and we conducted our school-wide morning meetings outside!

The Expansion presentation was a turning point for me as a Trustee, as a parent, and as a volunteer. It was the first time that I really felt that expansion was actually possible. It wasn’t just idle chatter anymore, and  I couldn’t wait to see the facility.

Unity Charter School Spanish Room

Unity’s Spanish language classroom

The building itself was in a slightly shabby state of disuse. But to me, it was full of promise at every turn. Crumbling ceiling tiles on the floor? I saw a lovely small group learning classroom. (Current small groups were taking place behind a curtained off section of the hallway.) Water stained carpet from a leaky roof? I saw a bright kindergarten classroom with windows on two sides. (My daughter was currently in a classroom with no windows at all – only a skylight.) Forlorn playground full of waist-high weeds? I could already hear the happy squeals of children playing tag, and the bounce of the four-square ball.

Walking the halls, and peering into the rooms, I imagined the children filing from classroom to classroom, eating lunch in a real cafeteria, learning in a real school. It was a like a dream, and the building was vacant to boot! And finally, the last good portent: the children of one of our Trustees had actually attended the YMCA preschool in that very building ten years ago. He knew the building like the back of his hand. It all just “felt” right.

Future Unity Charter School playground

Unity students playing outside (plans to build a playground are in the works)

I got so excited about the prospects for the school, I immediately joined the Expansion Committee. I knew that there was an incredible amount of work to be done, and I wanted to help. The Expansion Committee was an amazing and dedicated group of volunteers with the perfect mix of talents for this mission—Architect! Lawyer! Fundraiser! Sustainability Expert! Accountant! and even a Nurse! It was an expansion “dream team.”

Little did I know that the next ten months would prove to be an intense, grueling, emotional roller-coaster of planning, strategizing, endless meetings, presentations, negotiations, frustration, perseverance, tears, drama and great memories too.

I’m chuckling as I write this, remembering some of the more hilarious and downright ludicrous moments: Conference calling banks inquiring about bond financing from our “office”—the backseat of a committee members’ car that had conference call technology! Another committee member, sending expansion emails from the floor of the closet of her hotel room during her family holiday, so that the light from the computer screen wouldn’t wake her children. Our husbands, texting each other, and commiserating as self-described “Expansion Widowers.” Our maternal fears that our children would suffer malnutrition from endless meals of mac and cheese. Sneaking downstairs in the wee hours of the morning to work on financial projections, so that my family wouldn’t see how much time I was spending on “expansion,” which had now become a dirty word in our household. Final lease negotiations, held in my laundry room, while the other committee members’ collective nine children stampeded throughout the house.

But finally, success! We opened the doors for the start of the school year at 8 am on Monday, September 13, 2010, right on schedule (barely!).

I feel immensely proud to have been part of the expansion effort, and the fact that Unity can now bring quality sustainability education to so many more children and their parents. I also feel fortunate to have been able to work with such an incredibly talented group of women, whose intelligence, perseverance and commitment to education and sustainability are awe-inspiring. But most of all, I feel amazed. Amazed every single time I walk in the building. Amazed that we did it despite our limited finances and that we did it in such a short time period. Amazed … and immensely thankful. •

This series continues next Monday.

Images: Unity Charter School