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University Charter School comes full circle with senior class

University Charter School's first senior class, the Class of 2023.

UCS's first senior class toured the charter school's new campus earlier this semester.

UWA's bond with the groundbreaking K-12 school is immense     

Story: Phillip Tutor | Photo: Betsy Compton

From day one, aspirations and expectations have lived alongside education at University Charter School. They’re baked into its foundation, thoughts of academic achievement and varsity football and alumni returning every fall. But none has been more transformational than dreams about a senior class walking the hallways of the school located on the campus of the University of West Alabama.

Finally, it’s happening.

“It's almost surreal that we have students we’re sending out into the world,” said Dr. J.J. Wedgworth, UCS’s head of school.

Since the school’s founding year in 2018, UCS faculty and administrators have navigated a sea of firsts: first day of classes, first freshman class, first athletic events, first sophomore class, first return-to-school pandemic plans, first junior class. But the start of the 2022-23 academic year has brought not only visions of the soon-to-be-finished, 70,000-square-foot facility on the northern edge of the UWA campus, but also the arrival of the first 12th-graders, the first senior class.

It’s impossible to overstate the significance, administrators say.

With 17 students, UCS’s inaugural cohort of seniors is the smallest class on campus. Among them are four seniors who enrolled at UCS as eighth-graders. Collectively, the 2023 senior class has always included the school’s oldest students; as they’ve matured, rising in grade level and approaching graduation day, they’ve been the first freshmen, the first sophomores and the first juniors. “They’ve always kind of been the seniors in the building,” Wedgworth said.  

If omnipotent, UCS’s top administrator would snap her fingers and ensure this senior class could enjoy the unfinished facility on University Boulevard, a lifelong memory that depends on construction schedules, winter weather and supply chain issues. Since opening four years ago as Alabama’s first rural charter school, UCS has held classes a mile south in Lyon Hall, home to UWA’s College of Education. Administrators are optimistic the new facility will be completed in 2023, but that’s a future concern; the now is more pressing. UCS’s first commencement ceremony is May 2023. “I would really love for our senior class to get to walk the hall,” she said. “We feel like we owe it to them to at least get to experience it.” Wedgworth’s grandiose desire is to relocate the upper grades to the new campus in the spring, she said.

Creating traditions at UCS

That newness -- the first students to experience almost everything on campus -- permeates UCS’s Class of ’23. Everything had to be created, not only curriculum and procedures but also traditions and student activities that survive year to year. Precedent didn’t exist, said Tracy Bryan, the school’s strategic partnerships officer. Discussions with 12th-graders helped administrators craft activities that may become annual events. A popular addition has been a schedule of “dress-up” days in which seniors eschew the school’s required uniforms and wear themed clothes; in August, UCS’s seniors enjoyed an “aloha” day and dressed in Hawaian-styled shirts and floral leis.

That is a real treat,” Bryan said. “Our students made it clear that they enjoyed dress-up days, and that they wanted to be able to have more out-of-uniform days for their senior year. It kind of builds a family feeling together.” The students will also have some voice in how administrators shape the end-of-school days for the senior class prior to graduation, she said.

“I think the community was at a crossroads and the university was in a position to start to make a difference, being the largest kind of resource engine in the region. The university is part of who we are. We were founded by the university as an extension of the mission to serve the community. There will always be a very strong connection.”

-- J.J. Wedgworth, UCS Head of School

The intangibles that add spice to campuses matter, an acknowledgment UCS administrators and faculty have not ignored, Bryan and Wedgworth said.

“Every year we've tried to be very intentional about establishing or helping them develop whatever it is that they wanted their traditions to be, while not losing sight of the fact that in most schools, those things just happen naturally because they're tradition,” Wedgworth said. “They've happened year over year. So we, as the adults, feel like we had to facilitate that.”

Because UCS has had no alumni yet, the school holds “Dream Week” instead of traditional homecoming activities, though the difference is largely semantic. Beginning in the fall of 2023, the school will enjoy a traditional homecoming because this year’s seniors will provide another first -- the first alumni. Until then, administrators have told the oldest students, “Here's some options, here's what it could look like. Tell us what you want to do, and we'll make sure those ideas and fun things kind of come to fruition,” Wedgworth said. 

Four years of academic success

Traditions aside, the opening of UCS’s fifth academic year has given administrators at both the charter school and the university opportunities to boast. The inaugural senior class, though prominent, isn’t the only headline. More than 650 students are enrolled -- including 37 juniors and 44 sophomores -- giving the UCS/UWA partnership the distinction of educating students from pre-kindergarten through the university’s graduate and doctoral programs on the university campus.

“This full-circle accomplishment gives the UWA campus a highly unique point of pride in that we now have individuals on our campus from newborn to post-graduate,” said UWA President Ken Tucker. “Beginning at six weeks of age at UWA’s Campus School, then to University Charter School for grades pre-K through 12, and continuing through associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, a person could essentially experience a lifetime of learning on our campus. The University’s overarching goal in supporting the establishment of UCS was to provide quality educational opportunities and choice to thereby support growth and sustainability for our area, and the school’s enrollment numbers and academic success prove its value in our community.”

UCS features open enrollment, but state guidelines limit the number of classroom seats in each grade, Wedgworth said, which forces a random lottery draw for most grades. Sixty students are in UCS’s kindergarten this year, she said; 24 others were unable to enroll because of classroom size restrictions. Last year, 88.6 percent of third-graders tested as proficient in reading for 2021-22, which was 11.1 percent above the state average.

“They've done a good job growing the program, but not growing it too quickly so that it's manageable. They've obviously done a good job with their academics because we look at their test scores, and they do really well."

-- Dr. Eric Mackey, Alabama state superintendent of education

As a Sumter County native, Wedgworth smiles when discussing UCS’s origins and the university’s role in seeking a sustainable way to improve public education in its Black Belt region. Time hasn’t stunted that pride or the credit she gives Tucker and other administrators. “I think the community was at a crossroads and the university was in a position to start to make a difference, being the largest kind of resource engine in the region,” she said. “The university is part of who we are. We were founded by the university as an extension of the mission to serve the community. There will always be a very strong connection.”

Dr. Eric Mackey, Alabama state superintendent of education, toured UCS’s Lyon Hall classrooms and its uncompleted campus in September. He hadn’t visited on-site with Wedgworth and her colleagues since before the pandemic, he said, and he left impressed by the progress, academically and physically, that’s occurred since then.

“They've done a good job growing the program, but not growing it too quickly so that it's manageable,” Mackey said. “They've obviously done a good job with their academics because we look at their test scores, and they do really well. They do comparable with other public school districts in the state.”

For Wedgworth, Bryan and the rest of UCS’s faculty and staff, the connection between the school and UWA is as obvious as the university branding that still adorns Lyon Hall’s entrance. Separating the two institutions is as impossible as avoiding sand at the beach. On that, Wedgworth turns firm. “I mean, we are ‘UCS,’” she said. “The university part is literally in our name. It's intentional for it to always be a part of it.”

From Montgomery, Mackey’s statewide view of UCS’s first four years is essentially simple: the school is performing as advertised.

“What the university has done is really a bridge for the whole community, the way we see it,” he said. “They're drawing students from miles around from multiple counties, and it's been really good for the community. That's been good for UWA. And that helps us because UWA feeds a lot of teachers back into our school districts across the state.”

UCS’s senior class of 2023

Audrey Leigh Akins, Arieyah Ikeya Brown, Robreisha Tyshai Brown, Savannah Hope Burg, Mayra Alejandra Cardenas-Tinajero, Kirstyn Paige Egbert, Omar Ahmed Hassan Elnaham, Alexandrea Marie Ertha, Ty Haze Fleming, William Luke Goldman, Katelyn Martina Greer, Kendall Brooke LaCoste, Jaylin Will Allen Pyles, Shardaisha Maria Rumley, Corey Thomas, Carlos Walker, and Jeremiah Isiah Walker.