By Marion Filler
Set back on Morris Township’s Evergreen Place, the Unity Charter School takes some effort to find.
It’s the only charter school in Morris County and, according to Jen Carcich, the school’s academic interventionist, “Most families don’t know it exists.”
Unity recently celebrated National School Choice Week in hopes of changing that, and to raise awareness about options in public education.
Clearly, some families have discovered the Unity Charter School. It’s at capacity with 240 students in grades K-8, and there is a waiting list.
“It’s a public school, but any student can apply through a lottery system,” explained Carcich. “It’s literally names out of a hat based on the tiered system that the state has designated for charter schools.”
Unity Executive Director Connie Sanchez described three tiers: The first gives preference to siblings of students already enrolled, second gives preference to students in the Morris School District, and the third is open to any child in New Jersey.
Students from 40 school districts attend Unity, with some pupils commuting from as far as Rutherford and Newark.
Charter schools have been controversial since the state authorized their creation two decades ago.
With New Jersey on pace to have 100 such schools by next year, state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet has begun a review of the movement.
Public schools subsidize charter schools, and critics have accused charter schools of cherry-picking students and under-serving minorities and the disabled.
A Latino coalition in 2017 charged that Unity failed to reflect the diversity of the Morris School District. The statewide coalition also raised academic concerns.
A year earlier, the state cited “unsatisfactory” test scores relative to the Morris- and Parsippany school districts in denying a Unity expansion request.
Unity officials say they adhere to the state’s admission guidelines and strive to provide an environment that enables students to thrive.
Parents are likely to be involved at a very high level, especially since transportation is not provided by the school. If a student’s home district normally provides busing, the family is refunded for travel expenses.
The distances can make socializing with classmates from other towns challenging. So the school compensates by offering an abundance of after-school activities, including track, volleyball, basketball, and a school play planned for later this term.
While children are allowed to bring their own lunches, cafeteria food is strictly vegetarian and it’s prepared and served by parents.
The idea is to instill eco-literacy and sustainability by eating less meat and serving food on reusable plates and utensils.
A positive disciplinary approach and character-building are emphasized in all grades. Conflict resolution is memorialized in the “Three-Step Apology” corner where disputes are settled amicably.
A 30-day “Kindness Challenge” involves all students and adults in the building. They are asked to find meaningful ways to volunteer in their communities and document their service with photographs, all of which are posted on a large bulletin board.
The project will culminate with a pep rally.
Small class size is often, but not always, the case. Similarly, housing grades K – 8 in close promimity may be ideal for some and anathema for others.
While core state mandates are followed, “We have a lot more flexibility than traditional schools,” Sanchez said.