Sink or Swim
Union City, N.J., has a picturesque view of Manhattan from across the Hudson River. But the picture of Union City wasn't so bright 12 years ago.
By the looks of the district now, one would never know it was on the verge of being taken over by the state in 1989 after failing 44 of 52 state indicators used to assess schools. Attendance, dropout rates and standardized test scores were below state and national averages in the district that has 85 percent of its students receiving free or reduced lunches.
The district, where 93 percent of the 11,500 studentbody is Latino and 75 percent don't speak English at home, was faced with a choice to sink or swim.
So, they swam, and they've since earned high marks. Former President Clinton even gave the district kudos in his address to the schools in 1996. "I want the rest of the country to know about it, and I want everybody in the country to be able to emulate it," he said
The turnaround came after the district, which has 11 schools, formulated and implemented its five-year Corrective Action Plan, calling for systemic changes in the educational system.
Using a "whole-language approach" to learning, the district created a curriculum that encouraged thinking, reasoning and collaboration skills. The school budget increased from $37.8 million in 1989 to $126 million in 2001 due to equitable school funding legislation.
And in 1995, the Union City Board of Education, along with Bell Atlantic and Center for children & Technology of the Education Development Center, developed a technical infrastructure that links more than 2,000 PCs in classrooms, media centers, computer labs and homes to the network. The district is among the most comprehensively wired urban districts in the country, according to the center's report, The Transformation of Union City.
Given the changes, administrators see a better package-from increased test scores to better futures.
"From being the second worst district in the state in 1989 in testing results, to being No. 1 in urban cities in New Jersey is amazing," says Fred Carrigg, executive director for academic programs for the Union City Board of Education.
Some highlights include:
Technology changes brought in 4,000 computers and infused technology into every part of the curriculum, from creating student Web sites regarding the origins of geometry to connecting schools to public libraries, city hall, and the local daycare center where preschoolers start to tap on keyboards.
In-service teacher training increased from eight hours a year to 40 hours.
Cooperative learning tables replaced individual student desks.
Textbooks were replaced and/or supplemented with novels, class libraries and authentic literature. The results are something to talk about, according to administrators.
State test scores show students score the same as or better than their counterparts in urban districts and even better than some national averages.
And Carrigg says about 80 percent of eighth graders passed the state language arts exams this year-double the percentage in typical N.J. urban districts. "That's amazing in a limited English community," he says.
In 1994, 25 students were enrolled in AP classes and 20 percent passed. In 2000, 146 students were enrolled in AP classes and 38 percent passed.
More students are heading to college and many students are returning to the public school system after having left years ago for private or charter schools, Carrigg says. In 1998, eight students were admitted to Tier 1 universities and colleges compared to 62 students in 1999.
When the district was in jeopardy, Carrigg was the supervisor of bilingual/ESL education but he was then put in charge of curriculum instruction. He says he and others formed educational research committees to learn what was "going wrong." Teachers made up most of the committee members because "they knew what the kids needed to learn," he says.
According to the center's transformation report, a subcommittee examined the way schools were organized and found a trend in the development of reading skills. Instead of working from the phonetic sound system and starting with A and ending with Z-or rote learning-to teach the alphabet, reformers wanted teachers to start with a more natural approach with authentic stories with obvious initial consonants. If a teacher was reading "Three Little Pigs," the "p" is repetitive. It allows children to practice listening and speaking while repeating phrases and seeing how letters are used while using their imagination.
And Carrigg points out that while students write research papers, they are also encouraged to demonstrate competency through technology. Creating a PowerPoint presentation or Web site on topics such as writer Edgar Allan Poe, the history of geometry or painter Salvador Dali excites students more in part because it involves graphics and pictures, he says.
Also within the curriculum, Carrigg says, there are eight unassigned periods a week in elementary and middle schools. If a school population needs more work in science or computer education, for example, the school will add two more periods-or 80 extra minutes-in a week in computer or science labs.
Project SMART, or Science and Math Acceleration, Retraining of Teachers, was developed through the years to increase the number of minority students in math, science and technology courses which, in turn, increases the number of them prepared for college and majoring in science, math, engineering and technology fields.
It has evolved to include summer camp for elementary students to accelerated math programs for eighth graders. Project SMART interns work after school on Web design and maintain Union City's homepage.
Emerson High School computer teacher Ela Meseguer, a 23-year veteran, has seen a transformation in large part because the district now has more motivated students. She pointed to a program called Project Bulldog in which computer students have computers at home for projects, Meseguer says.
It is similar to Project Hiller, the program at the district's Union Hill High School, Meseguer says. Project Hiller is a four-year project that provides 140 students and 52 teachers with portable computers. It was essentially designed for students that would not otherwise have computers due to economic reasons.
At the end of the second year in 2000, there was increased use of the Internet as a research tool, e-mail, multimedia presentations, desktop publishing, electronic field trips and video conferencing with other schools.
Students also have access to a Class Link system in which teachers can assign homework and students can access it on the Internet. Students can research a subject through Microsoft's Encarta.com, for example, and answer questions on the computer. Teachers can correct the homework and make notes to the students on the computer. "The computer is the tool that allows them to immediately see the results of what they're learning," Meseguer says. "It's hands-on and they're having fun."
Meseguer says students in her Computer 4 class learn HTML programming, which is specific language that students learn to create their own Web pages.
"The writing has improved because they have to write properly when they create Web pages," she says. "They also learn how to research. They interview people, deal with digital photography and manipulate it."
WORK TO BE DONE
Carrigg says work has yet to be done on the high school curriculum. He hopes to have e-portfolios available by next year. The portfolios would represent a student's best projects in subjects so that future teachers could realize a student's strengths and potential, Carrigg says.
He says he's also looking into textbook-free and research-based units that would cut down on expenses of textbooks, for example. Carrigg says he still struggles with teachers, students or principals who, for example, just want one textbook for learning.
No pain no gain, he says. And students who would years before drop out of school are going to college-with grand dreams. "More and more students," he says, "are opting for computer science, design and engineering majors for college."
Angela Pascopella, email@example.com, is associate features editor.