Union City May Provide a Blueprint for Failed School Systems

Yesterday’s announcement that the state will take over Camden’s public schools turned the public’s attention to one of the most troubled school districts in the nation. Today, NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider sat down with University of California-Berkeley professor David Kirp to discuss one of the unsung success stories in public education and it’s taking place in Hudson County’s Union City schools.

Kirp teaches public policy at Berkeley and is also the author of Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools. Kirp spent the last three years delving deep into Union City and its schools to see what lessons could be learned as school reform, especially as it concerns urban schools, remains a roiling debate in New Jersey and beyond.


With a 90 percent high school graduation rate, Kirp said Union City surpasses the national average by 15 percent. Far from the affluent, leafy suburbs where most of the state’s top performing schools are located, Union City schools defy stereotypes.

“It’s one of the 100 poorest cities in the country, it’s one of the most crowded cities in the country, its unemployment rate is about one and a half times the national average,” said Kirp. Union City is also predominantly an immigrant town. “It’s got a lot of undocumented immigrants there living in fear that the immigration service will come pick them up,” Kirp said.

Twenty-five years ago, few could have predicted Union City’s success. Back then, Kirp said the school system was itself in danger of being taken over by the state.

“They were second worse in the state only to Camden. And then, piece by piece, they built a system.”

That system, he said, includes really strong preschools, a great bilingual education program that helps transition kids into English, strong support for teachers and students, frequent assessment and mentoring and tutoring programs.

Kirp pointed to two essential ingredients for the schools’ success — political leadership and community engagement.

On the political front, he said the city’s mayor Brian Stack, who is also a state senator, has been one of the school district’s greatest supporters. “A lot of the school buildings themselves including a $180 million high school there really trace back to him,” said Kirp.

What Union City also has in abundance may also be the most elusive and difficult to develop — neighborhood pride in the schools. Kirp recalled a memorable parents’ night at an elementary school that underscored this point.

“It was a raining, pouring night. Nobody was supposed to come to those evenings.” But to his surprise, Kirp said there was about an 80 percent turnout that night by parents and grandparents. “These folks are engaged and they’re engaged because there are parent liaisons who really connect with the community,” he said.

Union City is outspent by its underperforming counterparts in Camden and Newark. So it’s not just the money, said Kirp.

“It’s money used wisely. I mean when they got all the extra federal money [in] 2009, they used it on people. They used it to support the education mission of the schools. They didn’t buy fancy equipment or fancy machinery.”

Kirp also pointed to the local connection Union City teachers have with the community, saying “they’ve lived their lives there.”

What’s taking place in Union City is no miracle and can be replicated elsewhere, according to Kirp. He said it just takes a lot of support, hard work and patience.

“It’s a land without charter schools and not closing schools, not firing teachers. You’re not having a lot of Teach for America folks flying in for a couple of years. It’s just a very solid do your homework, tortoise beats hare kind of story.”