Union City, NJ Gets it Right

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Twenty-five years ago, Union City public schools were on the brink of state takeover. Today, they have a graduation rate 10 points higher than the national average. David Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of  Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools, discusses the Union City approach, and why he thinks it's an example for poor-performing urban school systems around the country.

Eight Key Elements to the Union City Turnaround, According to David Kirp

  • High-quality full-day preschool for all children starts at age three. 
  • Word-soaked classrooms give youngsters a rich feel for language. 
  • Immigrant kids become fluent first in their native language and then in English. 
  • The curriculum is challenging, consistent from school to school, and tied together from one grade to the next. 
  • Close-grained analyses of students’ test scores are used to diagnose and address problems. 
  • Teachers and students get hands-on help to improve their performance. 
  • The schools reach out to parents, enlisting them as partners in their children’s education. 
  • The school system sets high expectations for all and maintains a culture of "abrazos" -- caring -- which generates trust. 

There are two more essential elements that Kirp identifies: time and patience. "This is a tale of evolution," he reminds us, "not of revolution . . . Or, as he says elsewhere, "no quick fixes, no miracle cures." (Courtesy NJ Spotlight)


David Kirp

Comments [3]

Terrence Flood from Union City School District

I am a native from Hudson County in which Union City is located. I have taught at both public and private high schools from New Jersey to Montana. Currently, and for the last 15 years I have been with the Union City School System. When I first arrived back in Union City from Montana in November 1998 I walked into a computer lab with 6 workable computers out of 20+. I was the third replacement for this position in 3 months. I was told as part of my contract that I would have to work towards a minor in ESL so as to better accommodate our student population. I did get that minor, and it took me about three years to complete. The district picked up the cost of this. At the same time we were working hard to get newer more operable equipment and relevant resources/technology into the classrooms to improve curriculum and instruction. This happened in addition to compensating teachers fairly. Teaching contracts also kept me and others from migrating because for the most part they were fair and compensated teachers enough to keep us here. Mr. Kirp is correct when he says this has been a long road from where we were to where we are today. Progress is slow and steady but we kept our focus on taking up the responsibility or be taken over by the state. The administrators invested in great teachers to say the least. I am unsure how many of the district employees live in town/county but a vast majority I would say have some connection to Hudson County and Union City, so in turn we reinvested back into our community. Take it from me a local boy who left and came back only to find out that I was to be a part of a dynamic team of educators, some since retired, others still here, and new faces who add to the great eclectic nature that this district is comprised. It has taken time, commitment of a lot of people/stakeholders, more importantly the desire and drive to improve the delivery of education to our most precious resource of all, students. Kudos for all past and present who made this possible. It understandably is a great team effort that continues to this day so as to better prepare our students for Colleges, Careers, and a productive and proud future. Thank you Mr. Kirp and Mr. Lehrer for sharing your discussion with listeners which of course only made me more proud of my school district.

Mar. 27 2013 03:44 PM
Mary Mills from Jersey City

When the State took over the schools in Jersey City the lower level employees took the bulk of cuts.
Administration did not. The school budget more than doubled. Very little changed. The system in Union City is doing a great job. However , like the early population in the US, which largely spoke English, Union City speaks almost entirely Spanish. The city is tiny, only about one mile square with a large graveyard, a monistery and other parks. The Mayor is also a State Senator AND the superintendent of schools. The situation is vastly different in Jersey City where there is also a high illiteracy rate (15% illiteracy in all language) and over 80 different nationalities represented from all parts of the world. I don't think the State would have helped Union City the way they have helped themselves, but their circumstances are extremely unusual.

Mar. 27 2013 12:03 PM

Maybe the governor should take over all the state’s districts, cutting the admin cuts, allowing millions to be poured back into classrooms

Mar. 27 2013 11:09 AM

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