Saturday, July 16, 2005

Charter school: community + a building = TEAMS

Empty hallways lead to empty class rooms, but that will all change come September when Plainfield’s newest charter school to receive state approval opens its doors for the very first time.

“We are community builders,” says Sheila Thorpe, executive director of Union County TEAMS charter school.

The founders chose the name TEAMS, an acronym, because it stands for two aspects of the school‘s theme--Technology, Engineering, Architecture, Math & Science--and the teamwork that goes into new development.

One of the motivations for bringing the school to life was answering the question, “How can [we] work in our community to make it better?” Thorpe explained. “Young people need to understand--very early--how they can be a part of that.”

The school cleared its last hurdle July 6, when the Plainfield Zoning Board of Adjustment gave approval for it to open in the new Shiloh Baptist Church building on West Fourth Street.

Although the school and church are separate, the school will have an advantage over many charter start-ups in that it has access to a full gymnasium, music room and nurse’s office that are all part of Shiloh’s new Community Life and Cultural Arts Center, a multi-purpose complex. Next year, Thorpe said, the school will be able to use a state-of-the-art kitchen in the center for food preparation. The school is leasing its space from the church.

We toured the school a week after the final approvals were granted. Thorpe said that the spark that launched the charter school came in planning the church’s reconstruction. The old church had been built in the 1930s with money raised by the congregation, but actual building had become too small and outmoded for the needs of the 21st century. It was razed to make way for the expansive new $12 million church.

The opportunity to rebuild the church led congregants and community members to form a think tank on how to use the experience.

“What better way to do it than with a charter school?‘ Thorpe said. “The building itself was a learning.”
But it doesn’t stop there. The 180 incoming students will learn all their academic subjects with a special emphasis on “understanding the built environment,” Thorpe said, noting that proficiencies required by the state Department of Education are the same ones desired and needed to redevelop communities.

The school will have nine full-time and five part-time teachers. The principal will be Sandra Harrison, a former principal at Hubbard Middle School. Thorpe and Harrison said the K-8 structure will afford a sense of community that is missing in the current K-5, and 6-thru-8 grade divisions.

For those who are unaware, charter schools are public schools and receive public funding. The school will start with a $1.8 million budget from state and local funding, Thorpe said.

Union County TEAMS will join Queen City Academy, which has been operating for five years and has received their charter renewal for another five years. A third charter school, Central Jersey Arts School, is still in the planning phase and is scheduled to open in September 2006.

To date, the three approved charter schools in Plainfield are the sole charter initiatives in all of Union County.
When Union County TEAMS opens this September it will also mark a new chapter in Sheila Thorpe’s long career in education. She began teaching 36 years ago in New York and joined the Plainfield district 2 years later. After 20 years of teaching she became an administrator and on September 1 she will celebrate her retirement as the Plainfield school system’s director of staff development.

--Bernice Paglia and Barbara Todd Kerr

KEYWORDS: education