By Emily Browder
UNC Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE
From the outside, Union Independent School looks like a brand new elementary school with primary colors decorating the outside of the building, a smiling receptionist waiting for you at the front desk and large oversized crayons decorating the lobby.
However, UIS is far from the ordinary. This school happens to be located in one highest crime and highest poverty rate counties in North Carolina. This new building has brought a beacon a hope to its Northeast Central Durham neighborhood and community.
In order to help positively impact youth in impoverished and high crime neighborhoods, Jim Johnson, Director of Urban Investment Strategies Center and a Kenan Distinguished Professor at the Kenan-Flagler business school at the UNC-CH, has learned it is crucial to educate children in loving environments from the earliest age possible.
Johnson has worked with a program called the Durham Scholars Program since 1995 in collaboration with Union Baptist Church. This program was an after-school, weekend and summer program for teens, grades six through 12, growing up in Northeast Central Durham as an outlet for positive influences.
Although this program was a necessity to influence local teens, Johnson thought there had to be a more efficient way to actually reach them. The solution was to develop an institution where there was a greater opportunity to give the children a consistent message from an earlier age. Union Baptist Church’s Senior Pastor Kenneth R. Hammond had an epiphany – his church community could be the ones to start this initiative; they could be the ones to make the change.
“As soon as Pastor Hammond presented the idea to the church board, 5,000 people were lined up and ready to get this project in motion,” said Johnson.
The dream became a reality when the year-round school opened its doors for the first day of class on August 19 with 70 enrolled students in grades kindergarten through second. To attend, the students had to submit an application for random selection. All of the students’ parents agreed to be personally responsible for their children’s transportation to and from school every day, with the exception of two students who could walk because of their close proximity.
UIS opens at 7:15 a.m. and a hot, nutritious breakfast is prepared daily at 7:30 a.m. Students also receive a mid-morning snack, lunch, and a mid-afternoon snack and end their day around 6 p.m. This all may seem to be similar to many other elementary schools across the state; however, UIS has much more to offer its students than these basic needs.
Troy Weaver, head of school at UIS, has been involved in the school system for the last 23 years. “Every teacher in the school has received National Board certification, which is the highest level of certification for teachers and is a requirement of our Master teachers,” said Weaver.
Not only are all of the teachers at UIS highly qualified, but they also work to emphasize the loving and nurturing environment of one large family. UIS offers much more to its students and family than the average elementary school. Soon the school is opening up its own health care facility within the school, and a nursery for infants through pre-kindergarten age. “Eventually the school will be kindergarten through eighth grade but we wanted to start small and grow our students and families along with the program,” said Weaver.
UIS also strongly emphasizes global awareness through Spanish lessons every day and a variety of music/arts curriculum from different cultures. Another unique element of UIS is their health and wellness program, where physical education and a healthy diet (at home as well as school) is promoted and provided every day.
Overall, anyone who has been involved in this development would agree with Johnson “that this model school for public education is the key for success in communities across the state, and even across the country. We have built a new mediating institution in this neighborhood, an intervention hub offering a range services to give these children and families a safe haven and world class environment for them to mature.”