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Charter school opens with many changes, including its name

Kids Unlimited Academy Public Charter School kicked off the school year Tuesday with 100 new students, a new principal, a new cafeteria menu, a shiny new playground, several new classrooms and offices, and a new name.

“Lots of new things, but they’re all good things,” said Tom Cole, executive director of Kids Unlimited, a free after-school and mentoring program that is the school’s parent company and host.

The charter school, which opened in 2013 as VIBES Public Charter School, is accountable to the Medford School Board and, in May, got permission from the board to add full-day kindergarten and fourth grade starting this fall.

Over the summer, the school worked with Kids Unlimited to add six classrooms, including one designated for English Language Learners and one for special education students, as well as six offices, a health room, and a space for the Family Nurturing Center to offer a preschool program.

“We transformed what is roughly 13,000 square feet into new learning areas and classrooms for kids,” Cole said.

“We were really fortunate that we got some significant contributions from individuals and from the proceeds of our auction ($291,000), which was held in June,” Cole added. “We are working with a financial institution to extend our line of credit to finish the project.”

The renovations are expected to cost about $580,000 and, except for the preschool area, were completed last week, when teachers were allowed to move into their brightly colored classrooms.

This year, 250 students — that’s 50 students per grade level — are enrolled in the school, and there’s a waiting list for each grade, said Lynn Eccleston, who is replacing Stephanie Johnson, who retired as planned after getting the school up and running.

Eccleston spent 18 years with the Eagle Point School District, first as an elementary teacher, then as assistant principal of Eagle Point High School and finally as principal of White Mountain Middle School. More recently, Eccleston spent five years working with inner-city kids across the United States as the area manager of the Success for All Foundation.

Eccleston said she took the job because she was impressed with the school’s “out-of-the-box thinking and strong instructional model” and enjoyed working with kids from tougher populations.

Kids Unlimited Academy will continue to offer an extended day — 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. — with three meals and a variety of enrichment activities (tae kwon do, dance, cooking, Chinese, kung fu, among others) in the afternoon.

Last year, Sodexo, a school food provider, catered for the school. This year, the school’s board of directors and staff decided to hire a chef and kitchen staff to prepare meals made with fresher ingredients.

“If we want to teach these kids about healthy lifestyles and nutrition, then the food we serve them should mirror that,” Eccleston said.

On Tuesday for lunch, the kids enjoyed penne pasta with red sauce, a green salad, apple slices and carrot sticks.

In the future, meals will feature ingredients from the school’s gardens that staff and students plan to plant in raised beds around the playground later this year, Eccleston said.

With or without the raised beds, the playground seemed to be the best part of the first day of school for many kids, specifically those who attended VIBES last year when there was no playground.

Second-grader Brooklyn Vidonic, 7, said the playground was one of the reasons she was excited to come back to school after a summer of swimming and playing Wii games.

Besides the playground, Brooklyn said, the best part of Tuesday was choosing her enrichment activities — and getting to hold Shelby, the class turtle.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.

Kids Unlimited Academy second-grader Louis Hernandez gets a close-up look at Shelby, a pet turtle in teacher Tracy Rude's classroom, during the first day of school.Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell