University Charter School opens doors to nearly 300
School focuses on relationships, community empowerment through innovative education
LIVINGSTON, Ala.—Sumter County is making national headlines with the opening of its new University Charter School, which is the first rural charter school in Alabama. The commentary ranges from rave reviews of the innovative model the school creates to questions from those not familiar with Alabama’s Black Belt reflecting on the school’s diverse enrollment. Amidst the stir of a new routine, UCS officials say they could not be more pleased with the results of the school’s first week of classes.
University Charter School opened its doors to nearly 300 students on Monday, Aug. 13, following a 12-month planning year. The tuition-free school now serves students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, and a grade year will be added each year through 2022. The school has a STREAM (science, technology, reading, engineering, arts, mathematics) curriculum and is grounded in place-based education.
“Shaping well-rounded, collaborative students and citizens is at the heart of our mission at UCS,” explained Dr. J.J. Wedgworth, founding head of school. “We offer a rigorous curriculum, with strong emphasis placed on place-based, hands-on learning experiences, and part of this involves helping students understand who they are and where they live. We want students to develop their talents and grow intellectually, beginning at the earliest age.”
Charter schools are public schools. As such, they are tuition-free, funded by public dollars, and they are held to similar, yet more rigorous, academic, managerial, and fiscal standards as other public schools. They are governed by an independent board that promotes a strong collaboration between parents, teachers, students, and their communities.
“Support from and collaboration with our board of directors allows parents, teachers, and students to enjoy an environment where families are involved with their students’ education, and teachers have flexibility to meet the needs of their students,” Wedgworth said. “With this, our students are given the necessary structure and rich learning environment they need to be successful.”
Throughout the application process, which was sponsored by the University of West Alabama, UCS founders focused on aligning needs with resources and discouraging historical data with solutions to ensure that the school could establish a solid foundation for serving families and supporting the region’s economic and educational development goals.
UWA President Ken Tucker says that he is pleased to see the positive response in the community and beyond.
“From the beginning we knew that the establishment of this school had the potential to be truly transformative for our region,” Tucker said. “As University Charter School has progressed through its planning year and now is serving nearly 300 students and their families, we have seen the enthusiasm and support among UCS’s many stakeholders continue to grow. As families begin to see the positive outcomes of a high quality, innovative, and experiential-based program, we are confident that we will see the positive influence of this school throughout the county, the region, and the state as a whole.”
Tucker explained that the University’s Board of Trustees, in appointing an exploratory committee to determine needs, interests, and feasibility, sought to identify a major need that, if met, could transform and empower the region’s future. They believe that the school can have a lasting and profound impact on economic and workforce development through this innovative and progressive initiative that can be a model for rural education nationwide.
“This is a unique initiative in that University Charter School has established a model unlike any other to educate and grow its students, and we are already seeing the fruits of this effort with both families and businesses moving back to our community,” Tucker said. “Education is an engine that powers a community, and every aspect of a community can grow, improve, and indeed thrive when families and school systems and industry work together. We see UCS as a model that families will want to choose, and when they do, it brings new life to a community. There are so many moving pieces in Sumter County working with synergy right now, and the momentum is encouraging for a bright future.”
The school’s establishment was made possible by the passing of the Alabama School Choice and Student Opportunity Act, and the school provides an educational choice for families in Sumter County and the surrounding communities.
The school’s diverse by design enrollment has gained national attention. Historically, K-12 educational choices have been limited to two in Sumter County for nearly six decades.
“It is not lost on us that people are focusing on the of diversity in our enrollment,” Wedgworth said. “We realize that we are behind the curve in that respect, and we believe that this school can play a lead role in re-shaping our community for collaboration and relationship building. Our communities need encouragement and inspiration that gives hope for a bright future, and it is tough to see criticism of efforts toward unity and progress. For whatever reasons, the communities in our county have not reached this point before now, but we can offer our commitment to ensuring that this school is the vehicle for change that other communities across the state and nation have already experienced. We also know that there are other communities who also have not reached this point, and we want to encourage them to take the necessary steps for growth and unity.”
Wedgworth said that relationship building is a top priority for the school.
“While we know that a diverse school environment is crucial, we also know that relationships are powerful,” Wedgworth said. “Our one-to-one connections with each other at UCS are the foundation for change in our community. Building relationships with people from different cultures, often many different cultures, is key in building diverse communities powerful enough to achieve significant goals.”
At this brand new school, the majority of the students and employees alike have not worked or learned together.
“Students are building new relationships with one another, each seeing new faces all around them,” Wedgworth said. “Our faculty and administrators are building relationships with families, not just the students, so we can establish trust and a true sense of community, support, and confidence. This school will operate as a family with parental involvement helping steer essentially everything we do.”
The school has among its long-term goals improving the livability of not just Livingston or Sumter County, but the Black Belt region as a whole, and even beyond.
“We want to help strengthen our communities and empower future generations through education as a whole, from the core subjects to character education and development,” Wedgworth said. “We want students not just to ‘grow where they’re planted,’ but thrive.”
The school has done much to set the standard of excellence. It was the first application approved unanimously by the Alabama Public Charter School Commission in 2017. The school is on the prestigious roster of Alabama Bicentennial Schools. A growing list of educators at the school have sought and received competitive grants to enhance their instruction and programming.
The school’s opening was made possible through both financial and collaborative support from renowned foundations and partners, bringing in nearly half a million dollars in community support during its planning year. Public charter schools in Alabama receive state and federal funding once the doors open to students, but the planning year, startup funds, and additional operating needs are the responsibility of the school.
“This school is the product of collaboration throughout our community and with partners state- and nationwide, and we owe a huge debt of gratitude to every single partner,” Wedgworth said. “The doors are open because people saw a growing list of needs and wanted to support the efforts that will address those needs. We are committed to helping our students now become high-achieving, well-rounded, service-oriented citizens.”
To know more about University Charter School, its curriculum and activities, enrollment, and more, visit www.universitycharterschool.org or call 205-652-3848.