Smaller is better UC’s high schools divided into ‘small learning communities’

Union City has partnered with the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA), a leading school redesign company based in New York State, to create eight new ISA “Small Learning Communities” for next year’s freshmen classes within the city’s two high schools.

The purpose of the SLCs is to improve three things: academic achievement, student/teacher relationships, and college preparation.

“We are extremely excited about the opportunity to expand our reach into New Jersey and to partner with the first Abbott District to implement a non-mandated school reform initiative,” said Dr. Gerry House, president and CEO of ISA.

ISA has been working with schools, which are individually funded by each district in the greater tri-state area and around the nation to implement a system of small learning communities in larger comprehensive high schools.

Partners in education

National studies have proven that smaller groups of students continually improved in academics through a rigorous personalized curriculum, increasing the graduation rate and success in college.

Discipline problems also decreased and student and teacher relationships improved.

“In smaller learning communities, students do better academically and socially.” House said. “Students make better grades and graduation rates are a lot higher.”

The idea is not to create a separate new school, but rather create a school within a school, which would have its own model of operation based on seven principles that define and guide the ISA model.

The principles include a college preparatory program, accessible counseling for each student, a dedicated team of teachers and counselors, continuing professional development, an extended school year and days, parent involvement, and organizational improvement.

These guidelines are meant to help the school to create comprehensive plans and implementation strategies for redesign to meet the unique needs of schools and districts.

“The schools are the ones taking on the responsibility of restructuring, and we help set up the principles and model [for them to follow],” said House.

For their first time in New Jersey, ISA has partnered with the Union City Board of Education to implement the SLCs for the 2006-2007 school year.

“We have been working with the Union City Board of for about a year,” said House. “I had delivered a keynote address at a National School Board Association conference, which Superintendent Stanley Sanger attended and followed up with me afterwards.”

House addressed the low academic averages of students coming from large overcrowded schools and the insufficient preparation for college. ISA’s partnership with these lower achieving schools helped improved those rates.

Although Union City has continued to perform well on state standardized tests, the Board of Education continues to look toward new methods of improvement.

“Union City is committed to becoming a district in which all students receive maximum support and services necessary to prepare for success in college and beyond,” said Sanger. “We recognize the district needs experts help to attain the high level of achievement that we want for our students, and to sustain it.”

A school within a school

The eight new SLCs will operate within Union City’s Emerson and Union Hill high schools, which currently serve approximately 3,000 students, the majority of whom are Spanish speaking and have been academically under-performing.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, a non-partisan research organization in Washington D.C. set up to chronicle Latinos’ growing impact on the nation, Hispanic students have lagged behind in core academic skills and, as a result, are less qualified for college.

“In our surveys, 85 to 90 percent of these kids say they want to go to college,” said House.

The SLCs in the city will consist of 100 incoming freshman in each of the schools. Selection for the program is at the discretion of the schools.

“The existing teachers will be assigned to these smaller learning communities and ISA will provide the framework of how the learning communities work,” said House. “[We’re also] making sure that the students in the large school are also being well served.”

As part of the teachers’ continuing professional development, winter and summer sessions in curriculum instruction will be available, and ISA will provide a coach on the campus to support them.

The idea is annually increase the grade levels as student move up, ultimately establishing four learning communities in each facility, serving the 9th through 10h grades at a 400-student maximum.


Founded in 1990, ISA works as redesign partners with school administrators and teachers to facilitate the transformation of large comprehensive high schools into high-performing small schools.

ISA has worked extensively with New York City’s school reform to ease overcrowding over the last 10 years and has recently formed a partnership with Atlanta, Georgia.

For more information on the SLCs, visit


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