March 2012 General Assembly Re-Cap

Written by Peter. Posted in Education

Exercising the democratic governance model and celebrating its newly-renewed charter, Unity Charter School’s March 26th Assembly meeting helped pass an annual budget that will shape the school’s direction and priorities this year. Looking ahead, main school priorities include a slight increase in enrollment, as well as the creation of a new middle school learning group with an accompanying teacher specializing in science. The Board of Trustees also reported strides on existing goals such as improving data tracking and reporting of student achievement, mapping and expanding curriculum and strengthening the future vision of the middle school grades. The New Jersey Department of Education last month announced the approval following a November 2011 site visit that involved extensive staff and administrative preparation. The DOE also interviewed community parents for their perspective on the school’s performance. The process is designed to examine how well a charter school performs in the following areas: fidelity to charter, academic success, organizational viability and its five-year plan. Board member Peter Minde presented an overview of the expected budget for the 2012-2013 school year that incorporates the anticipated modest growth. The 2012-2013 school budget is currently projected at $2,530,280.00. Minde noted that because the mix of sending districts varies from year to year, it’s “always a challenge to plan.”   Sending districts’ individual per-student allocations mean that Unity may receive anywhere between $6700 to nearly $12,000 per student. Board member Tanya Seaward reminded Assembly attendees that “it’s not about the numbers, it’s about the children.” However, the school’s recent expansion has allowed for a historically healthier budget. While increasing school enrollment would benefit the school’s budget, Unity’s emphasis on small learning groups and a “community feel” remains a priority, said Unity Director Carolyn Mungo.  As part of the five-year plan’s development, the Board of Trustees voted to expand potential student enrollment to 240 on a strictly as-needed basis. The board noted that this increase has no timeline nor concrete plan for roll out.  Instead, it was passed to prevent need for a future enrollment waiver from the NJ DOE if financial conditions warrant. These waivers are very hard to receive, the board pointed out. The current facility can carry the 240 student capacity. By the 2012-2013 school year, the community plans to increase enrollment to 189. Currently, there are approximately 180 students enrolled for the 2011-2012 school year. In anticipation of growth, the Board of Trustees this year carefully examined the middle school community, formally defined as grades 5 thru 8.  By adding an additional class, the middle school will expand to four classes ranging from 16 to 21 students. Overall, the 2012-2013 school year expects the following class configurations; (10) learning groups in total:
  • (1) Kindergarten
  • (2) Grade 1-2
  • (1) Grade 2-3
  • (2) Grade 3-4
  • (2) Grade 5-6
  • (2) Grade 7-8
Board member Bill Feldman shared progress of the board’s goal of improving the data, reporting and tracking of student achievement. He noted, “Curriculum is really a combination of assessing your goals.”  He said the school has moved more existing assessments onto student growth reports, so parents have transparent access to student improvement. The curriculum committee has also discussed standardizing the “debrief” of each student’s Personal Learning Plan (PLP), a customized learning tool unique to the school’s progressive approach. This would allow parents to see the framework, timeline and goals of each PLP, while ensuring that the PLP’s design and goals stay customized to each child’s needs. Mungo shared Unity’s integration of the new Common Core standards that seek a national measurement of academic progress for public school students. New Jersey is currently shifting to these standards as part of a national educational effort. “I know there is a myth out there that charter schools don’t have to comply with the state standards,” but it’s false, she said. “Our approach is a little different—using the lens of Education for Sustainability (EfS)—but we have the same goals.” EfS informs Unity’s curriculum by emphasizing experiential, inquiry-based learning that connects academic subjects to themes of regional and worldwide issues of environmental responsibility. “We want to give students an opportunity to practice what they’re learning,” Mungo said. More information on the Common Core Standards can be found here. Assistant Director Michael Piacenza previewed some of the new math curriculum that the school community is reviewing this year to replace Everyday Math.  “We’re exploring several options,” he said, including those with a hands-on approach and online learning components.  Teachers have been bringing some of the possible programs into their classrooms this year to examine student response and performance.  The school aims to finalize a program by May. Seaward shared results and poll results from the school community regarding growth and direction for the middle school grades.  While a recent community-wide poll was largely positive, parents suggested an increased focus on after-school programs, academic rigor and study-skill programs in preparation for high school.  The board plans to hire a consultant over the summer to formalize recommendations and develop a phased-in approach.  Seaward said the board intends to review the technology available to middle school students and possibly offer an after-school running and yearbook club. The state’s shift toward technology-based testing means the school already has to expand its technology, said Mungo.  By 2014, the NJASK test will be conducted online for grades 3-8.  Minde noted that this is an unfunded mandate.  The school is looking at the potential purchase of new smart boards and/or projectors; projectors can cost up to two-thirds less than smart boards.  Mungo suggested that while teachers find smart boards to be an excellent tool, it’s a “jumpstart” instead of the whole lesson. Feldman added that they allow teachers to maintain more eye contact with students, because “you no longer have to turn your back on the students to write.” The next Unity Charter School Assembly will be held on June 4th.  Seven positions on the Board of Trustees are up for re-election.  The entire school community is encouraged to attend and participate in the democratic governance process.   Annalise Silivanch is a parent of a Unity third-grader and Kindergartener who both love going to school. She has (mostly) been able to make a living from the self-esteem boost of being “Class Author” in Miss Cunningham’s sixth-grade class. Annalise has written three books for young adults on environmental and education issues, and teaches college writing.

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