Emerson Middle School in Union City, New Jersey. (Wikimedia Commons/Luigi Novi)
This article has been adapted from David L. Kirp's new book, Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools.
Most school districts do a rotten job of educating immigrant youngsters. Routinely, they are shunted to poorly funded, overcrowded and understaffed schools, where teacher turnover is high and expectations low. They leave school prepared only for the brawn-work and domestic labor that no one else will touch.
Union City, New Jersey, four miles and light years from Times Square, has turned this narrative of failure on its head by bringing students like these into the education mainstream. The city makes an unlikely poster child for urban education. It’s one of America’s poorest and most crowded municipalities, with an unemployment rate nearly 50 percent higher than the national average. The population is overwhelmingly Latino, and it’s estimated that a quarter of the residents are undocumented—“sin papeles,” as they say. Three-quarters of the students are growing up in homes where Spanish is the language at the dining table and telenovelas, not reality shows, are the TV staple.
In other cities with similar demographics, many of these students would drop out or flunk out. In years past, that was the case in Union City. But now the situation is completely reversed.
Here's the headline: scores on the high-stakes reading and math tests approximate the statewide average. What's even more impressive, in 2011, 90 percent of the students graduated—that’s more than 10 percent higher than the national average—and nearly 75 percent enrolled in college. Step by step, from preschool through high school, Union City has devised a strategy that any school district can use.
Preschool plays a pivotal part in Union City's success. Iconic field studies have shown the powerful life-long impact of good early education. "Skill begets skill"—that's how Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman sums up the research.
Outside evaluators give Union City’s early education program high marks for the education it delivers. Seeing is believing.
In Suzy Rojas's class, art plasters the walls, plants hang from the ceiling, and in every niche there's something to seize a child's imagination. Angel, Victor and Rodrigo are peering at insects through a microscope, and they're happy to explain to me what they're seeing. "Are these all insects?" Suzy wonders aloud. "How do you know?" "That one has eight legs," Victor responds," and that means it's not an insect." Then Suzy brings over a prism. "What do you see when you look through it?" she asks, and Rodrigo looks up to say that he can't tell them apart, that they look like leaves. "Why do you think so?" The youngsters have already learned about lenses, and she tells them that the prism is a special kind of lens."