Four years in – Unity Christian Academy to celebrate first graduating class

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Unity Christian
The future home of Unity Christian Academy is located at 700 E. 170th Street in South Holland. (Photo: Jennifer Yos)

School looks forward to moving into larger South Holland building

By Jennifer Yos

SOUTH HOLLAND, Ill. (May 27, 2022) – Unity Christian Academy (UCA) is celebrating its four-year milestone as a south suburban Christian high school. The academy provides open-enrollment Christian education for students from the south suburbs of Chicago and beyond, and will graduate its first class of students in June.

Changing, growing

The South Holland school has enjoyed continual growth and positive changes since its August 2018 ribbon-cutting ceremony at the opening of the school’s first campus location — 16341 South Park Avenue in South Holland, IL — also the home of Calvary Community Church.

The final remnants of Holy Ghost School will give way to Unity Christian Academy soon, as the academy hopes to move to the location in the new year. (Photo: Jennifer Yos)

In that opening year, the academy welcomed a class of 23 incoming freshmen. In its second school year, UCA’s student population almost doubled to 41 students. In the 2020-21 school year, fifty-three students were enrolled, and in the current school year, UCA enrolled a record number of 82 students, with 45% growth expected for next year.

Because UCA’s student population is growing, the Unity Christian Academy Board of Directors unanimously voted to bid on the Holy Ghost Church & School property — located at the corner of 170th and Cottage Grove in South Holland. On July 16, 2021, they closed on the purchase of what is to become the new campus of Unity Christian Academy. UCA hopes to complete the move to their new location in January of 2023.

Unity Christian Academy
This rendering by AMDG Architects gives an aerial view of the proposed renovation and addition of the former Holy Ghost School building. (Graphic provided)

Christian mission

UCA’s mission statement is “to empower a diverse community united by Christ to achieve excellence in education for the flourishing of all creation.”

In an interview with The Lansing Journal, UCA’s Head of School Neil Okuley elaborated on the school’s Christian-based mission statement: “We often say that we take faith in Jesus Christ seriously. We say that specific sentence because we have an open-enrollment policy, and so we want to be very clear with parents that when we’re talking about matters of faith and spirituality, we are talking about Jesus.”

Okuley noted that the academy’s tagline for their Christian-based curriculum is “College Career Calling.”

“…So we’re going to be doing four years of prep work for career preparation,” he explained, “and also just diving into the questions of who God is, who [the students] are, and how He has created them to work in this world.”

Tuition structure

UCA students come from varying socio-economic backgrounds, made possible by the academy’s unique sliding-scale tuition rate. Currently, yearly tuition is 11% of a family’s adjusted gross income, up to a maximum of $11,000, and with the minimum of $2200. Families currently enrolled reflect an economic bell curve with the average tuition just over $5000.

Structure of learning

UCA’s school year consists of six modules, each lasting approximately six weeks. During each module, students take four classes at a time so that they can focus on in-depth learning and have the time to produce higher quality work. In addition to college prep core classes, UCA’s four-year curriculum includes eight Bible and theology courses, a 50-minute weekly chapel format that includes time for giving testimony, for corporately learning songs, and for hearing the Bible preached.

Landon Ford
Neil Okuley is the Head of School at Unity Christian Academy. (Photo from weareuca.org)

“But then faith is formed in so many other areas,” Okuley added. “Every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, our students get to meet in small groups with a member of the faculty. And, of course, while we’re an open-enrollment school, we explicitly hire men and women who made the decision for themselves that they are followers of Jesus. And so, it is [in] the most informal interactions that faith talks.”

One part of UCA’s career preparation is the internship program, in which seniors are matched — based on their individual career interests — with businesses and institutions to serve as interns for six weeks. The program has evolved in the last couple of years, and is now intended to be a four-year sequence. This year, freshmen started investigating career clusters they are interested in, and by the time they become seniors, Unity Christian will find a business partner to match their interests. The Lansing Journal hosted UCA senior Landon Ford last fall as an intern.

UCA students are also encouraged to take at least one high-quality online course before they graduate in order to become independent learners, engage in studies that excite them, and maximize their learning opportunities after high school.

Building a successful community

In the first year that the academy opened, UCA staff discovered that the students — who were mostly strangers — were initially having difficulty relating to one another and so in years 2, 3, and 4 , they instituted “Freshmen Launch” to foster relationships. Okuley believes it has made a big difference: “One of the big challenges — to cultivate the culture of a healthy, vibrant Christian school — we’re seeing that now. It is a tremendous thing. Last year at the end of the year, students were given an opportunity to share — open mic — to share testimony. Ten to twelve students came up and shared what UCA has meant to them, but more importantly, what God is doing in their life. And it was moving.”

Okuley credits the teachers for the success of the school: “The teachers here are the reason why the school is successful because they’ve decided this mission is worth pursuing, this community is worth building, and so people move to the area and bought houses in the area… It is so important that we acknowledge and celebrate the fact that the reason why Christian schools in general are so important is because you’re learning with people who have deep convictions about who these students can be, who they’re called to be.”

UCA’s founding class graduates

On June 10, UCA’s founding Class of 2022 will march in an inaugural graduation ceremony in the sanctuary at the new campus at 700 E. 170th Street in South Holland. This year’s graduating seniors have applied to and have been accepted to a number of institutions including the University of Illinois, Chicago; Bethel University in Minnesota, Bradley University in Peoria, Columbia College in Chicago, the Marines, and Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington, IL.

UCA opened four years ago, but the school’s origin began years earlier in 2014 when a committee of local clergy, business professionals, educators, parents, and community leaders met to discuss the future of Christian high school education in the South Suburbs of Chicago. The committee conducted extensive market research, listened to community members, and formed a Board of Directors in 2016 — all of which contributed to Unity Christian Academy becoming a reality. Loukisha Smart-Pennix served as founding Head of School from 2018-2020, and Okuley began serving as Head of School on July 1, 2020.

UCA
UCA and local leaders gathered at the ribbon cutting of the school in 2018. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

“If God has a use for Unity Christian Academy, He’s going to provide, and He has,” Okuley said.

Unity Christian Academy is currently located at 16341 South Park Avenue in South Holland. More information about the school is available at weareuca.org.

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Jennifer Yos grew up on Walter Street in Lansing with nine siblings. She attended St. Ann’s School and T.F. South, and she earned a BA in the Teaching of English from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a MS in Education: Curriculum and Instruction from the University of St. Francis, Joliet. For 34 years she taught English, as well as Creative Writing and Drama, at Lincoln-Way High School. She dabbled in freelance journalism for the Joliet Herald News Living section. Now retired, Jennifer appreciates the opportunity to write for The Lansing Journal and is uplifted by the variety of positive people she has already met who are making a difference in Lansing.