UCA invites local businesses to shape education


Redesigned internships will be part of the curriculum

by Melanie Jongsma

SOUTH HOLLAND, Ill. (January 23, 2018) – “We want you to influence our curriculum,” said Neil Okuley to the business leaders gathered at this morning’s breakfast meeting. Okuley is the Academic Dean of Unity Christian Academy (UCA), a new high school in South Holland that is redefining what it means to be educated in today’s world.

Internships will be a big part of the education offered at UCA, and UCA had invited local businesses to help craft those internships and make them meaningful and mutually beneficial. The meeting included representatives from Abbott’s Printing, Docter’s Interior Plantscaping, Grier Abrasive Company, IKG Property Management, JMA Architects, Miniat, Inc., Robinson Engineering, The Shopper Group, and the Village of South Holland.

Making education relevant

During the 90-minute discussion, several business owners expressed frustration with how ill-prepared interns—and new graduates—are for the workplace. Poor communication skills, lack of initiative, and over-dependence on technology were cited as discouraging characteristics.

Those “soft skills” are an important part of the education offered at UCA. Okuley says, “Part of our job as a school is to ask the question, ‘Who are we graduating in four years?’ We want to make sure we are graduating people who are able to meet the needs of our community and of the new jobs that are happening right now.” Inviting businesses into the curriculum formation process is a way of making education relevant.

Businesses are encouraged to tell the school specifically what kind of work they do in the community, what problems they solve, and what skills they look for when considering new team members. UCA will then weave those skills and opportunities into the education they offer.

Not a trade school

Okuley is quick to correct the impression that this approach will pigeon-hole kids into a career track right away. His intention is to prepare kids for meaningful work whether they enter the workforce after high school or after college, and whether they go into a trade or an office job or an entrepreneurial opportunity.

As Okuley outlined UCA’s four-year internship plan, he re-emphasized that UCA’s mission goes beyond simply providing an excellent education. The excellent education they offer has a practical purpose— “the flourishing of all creation.” UCA believes that education should expose students to a variety of opportunities and help them discover their own strengths and passions. As students learn how those skills fit into the workplace and into the community, they become high-quality workers. As a result, they flourish, their employers flourish, and the community flourishes.

A network of opportunities

Perhaps just as important, this partnership between UCA and the business community will serve as the students’ first network. As students visit workplaces, meet business owners, ask questions, and see skills in action, they learn who knows what—and who’s hiring. Likewise, the employers get a glimpse of the skills and personalities that Unity students offer. Phone calls, reference letters, and introductions become a natural outgrowth of the relationships that develop during the four-year process.

“We want our kids to be part of the fabric of the community the school is based in,” said Mike Nylen, Director of Operations for UCA and organizer of the meeting. “That means they need to interact with businesses and other areas of community that make this such a rich environment.”

For more information

Parents who are curious about this new approach to education are invited to attend an Open House on Tuesday, January 30, at South Suburban College, which is where UCA’s science classes will be held. Details can be found at WeAreUCA.org/OpenHouse.

Businesses who are interested in exploring partnership with UCA are invited to contact Mike Nylen directly: