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Union City: Old School and Preschool Success

Tingley-021 colorWhat is remarkable about the success of Union City Schools in New Jersey is the unremarkable way in which the turnaround occurred.  The methodology was decidedly old school.

In an opinion piece in the New York Times, David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California Berkley, explains how Union City reformed its failing schools.  It wasn’t with “charter schools or firings, but with patience,” he writes.   Kiirp spent a year at Union City working on his forthcoming book, Improbably Scholars:  The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools.

Union City is a poor community that is 75% Hispanic, about a quarter of whom are thought to be undocumented.  Yet students perform at or above the state average on tests.  In 2011 they had an almost 90% graduation rate, 10 points higher than the national average.  Three-quarters of the graduates went on to college.

So what’s the deal?  Strong teachers, good leadership, student engagement, rigorous curriculum.  Oh, yes – and a strong sense of pride and respect for “our house” instilled in kids by the principal and staff.  Nothing new here.  In fact, Kirp makes the point that Union City and other successful schools like them (and there are many others, he says) “didn’t become exemplars by behaving like magpies, taking shiny bit and pieces and gluing them together.”  Instead, he says, they relied on experience and research to design and implement what they knew would work.

School officials credit a big part of the district’s success to their universal pre-K program which enrolls nearly all of the community’s 3– and 4- year olds.   Research shows there is a strong correlation between preschool attendance and later success in school, and many were heartened by President Obama’s call in his State of the Union address to “make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.”  The plan would be that the federal government would partner with states to provide preschool for all 4-year-olds from low- to moderate-income families.    The plan also includes an expansion of Early Head Start.

MagpieHaving had experience trying to establish a pre-K in my last district, I have a few thoughts about it.  Despite my best efforts I was never able to procure enough funding to make it work.  As state aid declined, the community was already paying a bigger tax levy.  There was no classroom space, so we would have had to partner with an off-site agency already providing preschool for the children of parents who could afford to pay the tuition.  Oversight became an issue as well as transportation.

Still, the benefits outweigh the problems.  We know that kids in a quality preschool program staffed with trained teachers makes a difference in kids’ lives.  It boils down to money, but I still believe it’s a short-term investment with huge long-term dividends. 

We can continue to do what we’re doing and get the same results.  Or we can look at school districts like Union City and make the investment in programs like preschool, which we know works.  I’ll continue to hope that Congress will get behind an evidence-backed program instead of acting like magpies again.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.