High ropes courses, “crossing the line,” and team-building activities mark first week of “redefined” high school
By Josh Bootsma
SOUTH HOLLAND, Ill. (August 29, 2019) – Just over a year ago, South Holland Mayor Don De Graff stood with a crowd of teachers, students, board members, and community stakeholders and cut the ceremonial ribbon in front of Unity Christian Academy, officially marking the school’s opening. On August 19 of this year, the high school opened its doors and welcomed students for its second year.
Located at 16341 South Park Avenue in South Holland, Unity Christian Academy (UCA) is a small Christian high school dedicated to doing education differently. The school labels itself as “High School. Redefined. Redesigned.”
Last school year, UCA welcomed 23 freshmen to its current home, the easternmost wing of Calvary Community Church in South Holland. This year, the combined number of freshman and sophomores is 39, with a waiting list in place for freshman.
The first week
In line with the school’s commitment to doing high school differently, students and teachers spent the first day of school at Camp Manitoqua in Frankfort, IL, where the students participated in high ropes courses and interactive team-building activities.
Students spent the next day at school, but instead of diving into classes, they were treated to a more introspective day, where teachers were focused on making students feel like they belong. Jason Perry, founder of Oak Tree Leadership in South Holland, led students in a “Cross the Line” activity that helped them bond with their classmates by realizing their similarities. Perry would read a statement or question, and those who agreed or identified with what he said would move to a different part of the room, giving students and teachers alike a visual way to get to know each other.
Classes started on Wednesday, August 21, when students began their first of six “modules.” A new scheduling strategy this year, the school will break down its year into six, six-week modules rather than four quarters. This allows students to have breaks from certain classes throughout the year and affords them the opportunity to take more elective courses. Some of these elective courses this year will allow students to study gardening, ceramics, novel writing, photography, climate change, and more.
Students are already excited for what the extracurricular scene may hold for this school year. Given the school’s size, teachers are in the unique position of creating extracurricular opportunities tailored to the students’ interests. Last year’s extracurriculars were mock trial, drama club, student government, yearbook, basketball, and chess club. This year the same extracurriculars will carry over, and it is likely that more will materialize based on student interest. Students who would like to create their own club are invited to fill out an application to do so.
In talking with potential students, Unity Christian’s Head of School Loukisha Smart-Pennix often meets kids who have previous experience in an extracurricular program UCA hasn’t yet established, such as band or a basketball team. Those conversations give her opportunities to position the school’s smallness as a strength.
“This is an experience where you get to craft what the ‘next’ looks like for you,” she said, proud that UCA not only offers a variety of extracurriculars, but is able to allow students to develop both existing and new ones.
Learning from last year
Small policy changes have taken effect in year two, as well as a greater awareness of how to best communicate with students. “I am most grateful for the lessons learned in year one that have brought us to the place of year two,” Smart-Pennix said.
As an example, she pointed to communicating the goals and expectations of students on day one as an improvement over last year, when expectations weren’t always immediately made clear.
“Literally [it means] having students walk in the door and [we’re] saying, ‘I want you to be successful,’” Smart-Pennix said.
UCA faculty and staff
Joining the teaching staff at UCA this year are Noah Friesen (Math), Mary Nyaema (Science), and Julia Moffett and Marlene Boonstra, who will be splitting duties teaching art. The new teachers join Charis Bootsma (English and Faith Formation) and Amy Veldboom (World Culture). Neil Okuley is the school’s academic dean and also teaches history. Mike Nylen is the director of operations and finance.
A history of community commitment
Community stakeholders first held a meeting about starting a Christian high school in South Holland five years ago, where a vision for a community-oriented school began to take form. Today, Unity Christian Academy’s mission is “Empowering a diverse community, united by Christ, to achieve excellence in education for the flourishing of all creation.” The school’s sliding scale tuition model exemplifies the diversity aspect of its mission, as UCA makes Christian education available to families who might not otherwise be able to afford it, ensuring that the learning environment includes perspectives from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.
“[The sliding scale tuition model] has made this opportunity available for so many community residents who would have never had the pleasure of Christian education—but have always desired it for their children,” said Smart-Pennix, “With us being intentional about the community that we sit in, it allows us to give this gift of education to far many more community residents than before. It makes a difference.”
Unity Christian Academy is located at 16341 South Park Ave. in South Holland. More information can be found about the school on its website, weareuca.org.