Families of today’s eighth-graders have more options
by Melanie Jongsma
SOUTH HOLLAND, Ill. (March 24, 2018) – There was a time when “high school” was not a decision that had to be made; it was just something that happened after eighth grade. You and most of the other members of your eighth-grade class all simply went to the same high school, the one down the street. “College” would be the first educational choice you really had to put thought into.
But for today’s eighth-graders, a full menu of high school options is available. And in Lansing, with one of the two available high schools leaving the area, families are giving careful consideration to those options.
When a group of parents and educators began meeting four years ago to consider creating a new type of high school, giving people another menu item wasn’t one of their top priorities. The group that eventually became the Board of Unity Christian Academy (UCA) wanted first to provide an excellent education. Since they were willing to start with a blank slate, they were able to reimagine everything, asking, essentially, “What is high school for?” They let the answers to that question determine curriculum, staffing, schedule, and even tuition. The result is Unity Christian Academy, a high school “redefined and redesigned.”
Even so, in these months leading up to the opening day (August 15), the new landscape of educational choice has become a part of the conversation with prospective families.
“It used to be you just stayed with your friends,” said Bill Boerman-Cornell, father of one of UCA’s first enrollees. His eighth-grade daughter Frances recently made the decision to attend UCA, after considering the menu of options.
“We’re all going to so many different places now,” Frances said of her classmates at South Holland’s Calvin Christian School. The options her cohort is scattering to include Illiana, Chicago Christian, Marian Catholic, Homewood-Flossmoor, and Thornwood. Frances did her own research and narrowed her choices to Illiana, Chicago Christian, and UCA. When UCA’s Academic Dean Neil Okuley came and talked to her class, she was convinced that Unity was the best choice for her.
She had visited her two other choices, but UCA is, in real estate terms, blue sky—a vision, a plan, a lot of research, and an empty rented space. But starting something brand new is not intimidating to Frances. “He [Neil] did a really good job of painting a picture about what it would look like,” she said.
The fact that her father, Bill, is on the Board at UCA might also have been a factor in Frances’s comfort with choosing a school that hasn’t been built yet. His excitement about creating something new—in community with other professionals with a diversity of experiences—was infectious.
“This is not the brainchild of a single visionary,” said Bill. “It’s a community of people who care about the same stuff. Unity has a really committed Board and Board of Governors who are all committed to this.” Bill believes that broad base of diverse input gives Unity a foundation for longevity that typical start-up schools don’t have.
That foundation might be comforting for Charlotte Purnell to hear about. She and her husband John are the parents of Caleb, another eighth-grader who has chosen UCA. Caleb is excited about being part of something brand new. Charlotte would prefer the stability that comes with a school that’s been around a few years. “There’s a fear of the unknown,” she admitted. Where Caleb sees adventure, she sees risk.
John, too, is part of UCA’s Board of Directors, and while he is eager to recruit new enrollees into the first UCA class, he encourages his wife to voice her concerns, even at UCA marketing events. “If she has those fears,” he said, “I know other people have them too. Once they give voice to those fears, we can answer them.” For families who are worried about the stability of a start-up, he makes this point: “The school itself is new, but the people running it are not novices. They have a lot of experience in established schools, and they’ve done the research about what works and what doesn’t. Unity Christian Academy is cutting-edge, but it’s not unproven.”
Diversity and community are intertwined in South Holland, as they are in Lansing. And diverse community is a key part of UCA’s DNA. Not only are they creating a community within the school—a place where bullying is resolved through character formation, where differences are explored rather than feared, and where students and teachers challenge each other to greater excellence—but they want the school to impact the broader community as well.
Through UCA’s four-year internship program, every student will have opportunities to learn about local businesses—and businesses will impact the curriculum of the school. Project-based learning means that students will understand how math and science and art are not separate disciplines in the real world, but are skills that can work together. And a special partnership with South Suburban College not only makes advanced lab courses available to UCA students, but it also gives them exposure to higher education and a wider range of people and cultures. “The city will be my son’s classroom,” said John.
Bill also includes community and social justice in the list of UCA characteristics that are important to his family. “Our daughter is not going to grow up in a world where people all look like her—and that’s a good thing,” he said. “Authentic diversity is a gift. School should reflect that.”
The concept of community also refers to the geographic location of a school. The Boerman-Cornells have had connections to Illiana for generations. They love Illiana, but Illiana’s move to northwest Indiana would make the daily commute difficult. So UCA’s location was a factor in their choice. “I love that it’s a Christian school in our community,” said Bill. And Amy agreed: “This is a need in this area.”
Both Frances Boerman-Cornell and Caleb Purnell seem to be the type of kids who are unfazed at the prospect of charting new territory. “There’s some apprehensiveness,” Frances admitted, “but I honestly am more excited at this point.” Her interests include writing, the arts, music, and athletics, as well as strong academics, and she likes the idea that she will be invited to help shape a curriculum that feeds those interests. The curriculum will almost definitely look different from what her friends experience at the high schools they’ve chosen—while they participate in choir, band, or a Music Appreciation class, she might be writing music for a jazz ensemble or reviewing concerts at South Suburban College. Rather than framing these as things she’s “missing out on,” Frances is eager explore opportunities she hasn’t even imagined yet.
Caleb, too, recognizes that his love of baseball will most likely find a different expression at UCA—depending on the number of kids in the first class who also play baseball, Unity might not be able to field a team in year one. But Caleb is on a travel team too, so he’ll get his baseball fix that way, and he didn’t want athletics to be a factor in his academic choice. “School is school,” he said. And his dad, John, agreed. For their older son, Joshua, the Purnells included baseball on the checklist of things they were looking for in a high school. “But the checklist was different for Caleb than it was for Joshua,” said John. “For Caleb we wanted strong academics and unique experiences. Caleb just likes trying new and exciting things. The more he found out about Unity, the more he was like, ‘Cool.'”
The timeline for decision-making is different at a Christian school than at a public school, and John Purnell wants prospective families to be aware of that. Public school families might not realize that private school families are making their enrollment decisions now, before the end of the school year. Space is limited, and families who have grown up in that tradition understand that, so they sign up early. John remembers that when he transitioned his oldest son from public school to a Christian school, he almost didn’t get in because the deadline had passed. He doesn’t want public school families to make the same mistake when considering UCA.
“They might think they have plenty of time,” he said, “but it may be too late if they wait until summer to make their decision. There are only 30 slots. Total. That’s not a lot.”
And for families who wish they had a different high school choice for their kids, but who think they can’t afford a private school, John wants them to know about UCA’s distinctive “means-based” funding model. “They will be surprised at how it works,” he said.
Bill translates that cost into the value of seeing the effect choice can have on a child. He recalls a conversation the UCA Board had with a family whose son had experienced bullying at school and who was anxious about starting high school—entering a bigger population where he would be on the bottom of the totem pole again. As Neil Okuley described UCA’s smaller setting, and the emphasis on community, and the attention to character formation, Bill recalls watching the impact of that vision on this prospective student: “You could just see his shoulders relax and his whole posture change. When you hear about what the school is going to be, it’s a relief for students who might have fears about high school. So I encourage families who have any questions at all, come on in, take a look around, talk to us.”
The next public opportunity to do that is Saturday, April 14, at an Open House from 9:00am–12:00pm. The UCA campus is at 16341 South Park Avenue in South Holland. For more information and to RSVP, visit WeAreUCA.org/openhouse.