20 Fun Facts You Must Know About UNIS History


Class of 1983 | Photo: UNIS70 Flickr

By Qiyuan Shengni, Editor-in-Chief

1. Upon the founding of the United Nations and the building of the UN headquarters, the education of UN employees’ children became an issue that had to be addressed. There were three possible solutions. The first was to send the children to their home countries. The second was to send them to local NYC schools. The third was to design a school and an education that best fit the children of the UN community. And thus, UNIS was born.

2. The ‘baby UNIS’, then known as the International Nursery School (INS), was founded on October 17, 1947. It employed four teachers and enrolled 36 children, who came from 15 countries and spoke 10 languages. The tuition was $500 per child.

3. The UN General Assembly did not allow the INS to use the name “United Nations” until May 6, 1948, when the Legal Department of the Secretariat finally granted this permission.

UNIS original logo


4. UNIS faced bankruptcy and possible closure by the end of October 1951 when the UN declined to give further grants that year. One of the Trustees, Leon Steinig, dug into his own pocket and solved the crisis. Such instances were common in UNIS’ early history.

5. Serious disputes broke out in the General Assembly over whether the UN should continue to fund UNIS, and, if so, to what extent. In 1955, UNIS’ funding came from outside source, with only 5% coming from the UN itself. Still, this funding was a very powerful and symbolic gesture.

6. UNIS’ financial partner––both individuals and institutions-– have been instrumental in UNIS’s founding and continued existence. The Ford Foundation provided a $11.5 million initial grant to assist the construction of UNIS buildings in Manhattan in 1965, and Laurance Rockefeller donated another $1 million to finance the Manhattan site construction in 1970.

7. Although the Board of Trustees had chosen a “fit” candidate for director of the school in June, 1954, the position remained vacant until August, 1959. That candidate in question was left in limbo because there was not enough money to pay him.

8. The Acting Director, Mme. Baudouin, resigned in 1955 due to many difficulties. Two of the most serious ones were the inadequate physical space for a growing student population and the issue of creating an appropriate international curriculum for the UNIS students, who came from diverse cultural backgrounds.

9. The UNIS academic program aimed to combine an international idealism with educational practicalities. In reality, though, the lessons were often based on what the teachers knew or what the available textbooks contained in 1949.

10. In 1954, the elementary program was completed and contained just three major subjects: first language (English or French), mathematics, and social studies (a combination of world history and geography).

11. UNIS changed locations four times: from a Guest House at Lake Success to Parkway Village in November 1950, to the corner of First Avenue and 70th Street in Manhattan in September 1958, to 54th Street between First and York Avenue in 1968, to the current Manhattan campus at 24-50 FDR Drive in 1973.


UNIS at Parkway Village, Queens

12. It to0k 20 years to find and build the UNIS Manhattan campus.

13. The first graduating senior class of UNIS was the class of 1958. They were the first class to take the General Certificate of Education (a British standardized exam) and graduate.

14. In 1958, the education at UNIS was taxing both academically and physically; students had to literally help with the move to the new building on 70th Street.

15. In 1964, the UNIS graduation ceremony was held in the General Assembly Hall for the first time, where the Secretary-General gave the commencement speech to 27 UNIS seniors. It was a small but unforgettable crowd.

16. In 1965, New York City Mayor John Lindsay granted UNIS a one-dollar-per-year 99-year lease on an East River pier at the east end of 25th Street—the greatest real estate deal of the century.

17. UNIS Manhattan was designed by Harrison & Abramovitz, an American architectural firm. Harrison was also responsible for the planning for the UN headquarters and Rockefeller Center.

18. UNIS was one of the founding schools of the International Baccalaureate. Fifty-two UNIS students were among the first 725 candidates to take the IB examinations in May 1971, and 8 out of the 20 full IB diploma candidates worldwide came from UNIS.

19. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the flood overwhelmed the bottom floor of UNIS and caused the school to be closed for nine days.

20. Famous UNIS alumni include Dorothy Bush, daughter of former president George H.W. Bush, and New York Knicks player Joakim Noah. Noah was expelled from UNIS as a sophomore for disciplinary reasons.

Note: All the information in the article is from the book The United Nations International School 1947 – 2017 by Mr. Peter Atkinson, a retired UNIS history teacher.