Union Independent school prepares students to thrive


By Katie Little

UNC Editor

the Durham VOICE

thedurhamvoice@gmail.com

A historical marker next to Union Independent School tells of a sit-in at the former Royal Ice Cream Company in mid-1957 that led to questioning the legality of segregated facilities at the N.C. Supreme Court.

Inside the school, administrators and teachers are conducting another experiment to strengthen and empower the Northeast Central Durham community.

Students listen to an early-morning lesson at Union Independent School. The bright colors in the room are designed to stimulate learning.

Students listen to an early-morning lesson at Union Independent School. The bright colors in the room are designed to stimulate learning. (Staff photo by Katie Little)

“What we want to do, in a nutshell, is to make our youth competitive,” said Martina Hicks, the school’s finance and business manager.

The goal of UIS stands in stark contrast to the reality of many schools in the Durham Public Schools system. Only 35.5 percent of nearby Eastway Elementary School’s students read at a proficient level, according to 2008-2009 test scores.

Opened in August after a $10.5 million building campaign, the school currently teaches kindergarten through second-grade classes. UIS plans to add a new kindergarten class each year until it expands to eighth grade, Hicks said.

The idea to build the school grew out of the Durham Scholars program, which offered after-school, weekend and summer programs for neighborhood adolescents from sixth grade through high-school graduation, said Jim Johnson, the chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees and a Kenan Distinguished Professor at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler business school.

Johnson said these extracurricular programs were not sufficient to ensure the youths did not receive conflicting signals at school and during the programs.

“To use a boxing analogy, we had to narrow the ring so that all of our kids are on the same page every day,” he said.

Part of the school’s mission is to serve as a testing ground for new teaching methods, techniques school administrators think will give students an edge. The school’s innovative curriculum includes emphasizing health and wellness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy, global awareness and character education, Johnson said.

The school plans to launch a few additional programs in the coming months to help serve the community and educate its students. UIS plans to open a new health-and-wellness clinic, anticipated to start treating patients before the end of the year, Hicks said.

The school is currently working with area hospitals to open the clinic. The clinic would charge on a sliding scale, and the community would have access to it, Hicks said.

So far, the school has received considerable community support. Many Northeast Central Durham residents thought that building a school in the area would deter gang and drug activity, Hicks said.

Martina Hicks stands in UIS’s multipurpose room. In addition to using it for fitness programs for students, the school plans to rent the space to groups to generate revenue.

Martina Hicks stands in UIS’s multipurpose room. In addition to using it for fitness programs for students, the school plans to rent the space to groups to generate revenue. (Staff photo by Katie Little)

Further commitment to the NECD community is evident in the upcoming fitness programs that will be held in the fitness center. Rows of treadmills, exercise equipment and a walking track will be open to area senior citizens and the community by early spring, Hicks said.

The school also hopes to launch a new program aimed at improving the lives of local African-American males. The program will include five initiatives directed toward the different ages at which these males are most at risk. Program organizers have been told they will receive a Kellogg Foundation grant, but they have not been officially awarded it yet, Johnson said.

UIS’s goal of being a model school could lead it to become a Durham Public Schools success story soon. The school will find out in July if its application to become a Durham charter school is accepted. It could attain charter status as early as the 2011-2012 school year, Hicks said.

The experiment seems to be working.

Agatha Brown, the school’s kindergarten teacher, said she came to the school because she thought it would give her a chance to give back to the community. She recalled a recent book about Martin Luther King, Jr., that emphasized the preacher’s tenacity and really resonated with her students.

“Sometimes, the kids will say to me, ‘Miss Brown, I’m persevering because we’ve been talking about the fact it’s just not easy,’” she said.

It is not easy, but Brown’s students and UIS are not only persevering but also prospering.

“It has just been to me absolutely phenomenal to see it go from a vision and just being talked about and too see — wow, it’s actually here,” Hicks said.



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