Academic Success in Low-Income New Jersey School District Offers National Model

Posted December 3, 2014
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog Academic Successin Low Income NJ School 2014

Union City, New Jer­sey is home to a major suc­cess sto­ry. Sit­u­at­ed just across the Hud­son from Times Square, it’s a poor com­mu­ni­ty with an unem­ploy­ment rate of 60% high­er than the nation­al aver­age, where most stu­dents are enrolled in the free and reduced lunch pro­gram. Nine­ty per­cent Lati­no, three quar­ters of the stu­dents here, main­ly recent immi­grants, are con­sid­ered at risk” because they live in homes where only Span­ish is spoken.

In fact, just 25 years ago, Union City’s schools were so bad the state was poised to size con­trol of them. Sil­via Abba­to, now Union City’s assis­tant super­in­ten­dent of schools, was part of the review team at the time. We start­ed with a uni­ver­sal pre‑K pro­gram for the dis­trict, which was vital to build­ing a basic edu­ca­tion­al foun­da­tion. By the time they get to kinder­garten now, these chil­dren are read­ing.” Abba­to, whose par­ents are Cuban, has worked in the dis­trict as a teacher and prin­ci­pal for 34 years.

The edu­ca­tors saw that the class that went through the cohort as preschool­ers, when they got to third and fourth grade had out­stand­ing New Jer­sey scores. If you want to make changes in the mid­dle school, you have to start in the ele­men­tary. If you want to make impact in the high school, you have to start in the mid­dle schools. So it’s all process, and it’s a sys­tem with­in a sys­tem, with a shared cur­ricu­lum through­out the district.

Also impor­tant is that most of the teach­ing staff were not only from the com­mu­ni­ty itself, but had, like Abba­to, been in the dis­trict for years—a con­ti­nu­ity and famil­iar­i­ty unusu­al in inner city pub­lic schools where pol­i­tics often cre­ates rapid staffing turnovers. Prin­ci­pal Les Han­na, whose par­ents are Puer­to Rican, is her­self a prod­uct of Union City’s schools and has been work­ing there as a teacher and admin­is­tra­tor for 36 years.

Everyone’s look­ing for the sil­ver bul­let that, you know, you’ll get instant results,” says Han­na about school reform. But it takes years of work. And it’s years of tweak­ing and see­ing OK, this worked, let’s con­tin­ue with that and build upon it. This is not work­ing, so let’s scale back.”

Sil­via Abba­to: What we start­ed doing was we build from the bot­tom and the top. And this way you meet in the mid­dle. Some dis­tricts are suc­cess­ful in pri­ma­ry, but then when it comes to mid­dle and high school, then that suc­cess erodes. So you ned to have an across-the-board pre‑K to twelve vision. It’s a vision that you con­stant­ly have to revise, you have to con­stant­ly devel­op, and change con­stant­ly. And not to be afraid to say, We made a mis­take, didn’t work, let’s go on.”

The dis­trict man­aged an amaz­ing turn­around: today, the test scores of stu­dents in Union City from third grade through high school, match many of New Jersey’s more well-off, and pre­dom­i­nant­ly white, sub­ur­ban dis­tricts. In 2011, 89.5% of the district’s stu­dents grad­u­at­ed from high school—roughly ten points high­er than the nation­al aver­age. Last year, 75% of Union City grad­u­ates enrolled in col­lege, with top stu­dents win­ning schol­ar­ships to the Ivy League.

David Kirp, a pro­fes­sor of pub­lic pol­i­cy at U.C. Berke­ley Kirp, is con­vinced that Union City’s trans­for­ma­tion offers a mod­el for insti­tu­tion­al reform nation­wide. Some argue that our schools are irre­me­di­a­bly bro­ken and that char­ter schools are the only solu­tion,” Kirp told us. Dis­tricts are des­per­ate for the quick fix — the flashiest new cur­ricu­lum of the moment; clos­ing fail­ing schools; fir­ing teach­ers who are count­ing the days til retire­ment and bring­ing in inex­pe­ri­enced Teach for Amer­i­ca grads. That’s not the approach Union City took — they build, from the bot­tom up, strong bilin­gual programs—teaching kids first in their native lan­guage then grad­u­al­ly bring­ing them into Eng­lish — and a com­mu­ni­ty-based sys­tem of sup­port for kids from preschool through high school.”

When we came to film at Union City’s George Wash­ing­ton Ele­men­tary, we found a vibrant, pos­i­tive atmos­phere of cre­ativ­i­ty, sup­port and car­ing. Prin­ci­pal Les Han­na warm­ly greet­ed each child by name as they arrived that morn­ing. It’s a cul­ture of abrazos—hugs and embraces”—as Kirp put it. It’s not just in terms of school stuff,” he said. But the school reach­es out to the parents—and some of these face real dif­fi­cul­ties in terms of work sched­ules or immi­gra­tion sta­tus. If a kid is absent for a cou­ple of days, or comes in late, the prin­ci­pal calls the par­ents to find out what’s going on.”

The cor­ri­dors were lined with col­or­ful art; sci­ence and Eng­lish projects the stu­dents were involved in. We filmed in third and fourth grade class­rooms, where the cru­cial tran­si­tion is under­way where chil­dren go from learn­ing a lan­guage to using a lan­guage to learn oth­er subjects.

Sev­er­al Casey Foun­da­tion stud­ies have shown that fourth graders who are read­ing pro­fi­cient are far more like­ly to grad­u­ate from high school and become eco­nom­i­cal­ly suc­cess­ful. Shock­ing­ly, the lat­est data indi­cates that nation­wide, a mas­sive 80% of low-income fourth graders aren’t pro­fi­cient. Nation­wide, only 19% of Lati­no fourth graders are pro­fi­cient in read­ing Eng­lish. But in Union City, the num­bers are four times high­er. Like any oth­er com­mu­ni­ty with poor fam­i­lies,” notes Kirp, the kids don’t have a lot of lan­guage in their lives. But this is a word-soaked curriculum.” 

This blog post and accom­pa­ny­ing video were pro­duced by Starfish Media Group and jour­nal­ist Soledad O’Brien.

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