Union City’s 10th through 12th graders will attend one central high school in the future, and there will be four junior highs for seventh through ninth grades.
These were the decisions in the long-range facilities plan recently filed with the state for Union City, addressing school construction over the next five years.
This was a change from the district’s original plan to build two new high schools. Several factors went into the change.
“The focal point of our long-range plan is the creation of small learning communities throughout the school district, beginning with early childhood education and continuing all the way through high school,” said Stanley Sanger, Union City superintendent of schools. “This plan will allow us to reduce school sizes throughout the district and remain at the forefront of today’s cutting-edge practices.”
How two became one
In accordance with the New Jersey Education Facilities Construction and Financing Act, which was passed in 2000, Union City had planned to build several new schools with state funding.
Two high schools were proposed to replace Emerson and Union Hill.
However, due to the financial troubles of the state Schools Construction Corporation (SCC), Union City and other Abbott “special needs” school districts lost funding for many of their anticipated projects.
“The uncertainty of what has happened with the SCC [has been a factor], but not the primary reason [for the change],” said Sanger. “The slowdown with the SCC gave us a chance to step back and see what we were going to do.”
With the remaining funding from the original state grants, the state was able to push forward with about 59 projects, including a new high school/athletic complex on the site of the former Roosevelt athletic stadium.
The second proposed high school project, which might have been built between 39th and 40th streets from Kennedy Boulevard to Bergenline Avenue, did not make the final 59. It also had met with much criticism from the community over the potential displacement of residents, businesses and the historic Union Hill Silk Mill. The city and the Board of Education had also looked at other sites for the project.
“The fact is we have always been sensitive to the [community],” said Sanger. “We looked for locations with the least amount of impact.”
The board revamped their original concept of two high schools into one central high school, and planned to build three to four junior high schools.
However, the financing and site issues weren’t the only reasons for the change.
According to Sanger, at the beginning of this school year, the state passed a new mandate that calls for small learning communities to be established at the high school level from ninth through 12th grades by September of 2008.
The small learning communities are meant to reduce class size, offer more personalized attention in curriculum, and career planning.
“With so many social needs and issues facing today’s student [such as early teen pregnancy], the urban kid is very needy these days,” said Sanger. “Our students will be better prepared for high school because they will have the advantage of smaller learning communities throughout their school career.”
Union City, in collaboration with a consulting group called ISA, has already taken necessary steps to include eight new small learning communities in Emerson and Union Hill high schools for incoming freshmen by the fall of 2006.
Sanger stated, “By establishing the one central high school for grades tenth through 12th, we have [slated the original high schools] to follow a junior high school concept for seventh, eighth and ninth grades, along with Jose Marti Middle School, and the hopeful construction of a new junior high school over the 35th and 36th street parking lots.”
The reason for including the ninth grade in junior high instead of the central high school is also to address many of the academic and social problems that occur in the primary transition grade from elementary/middle to high school.
“It’s a big adjustment from being nurtured from kindergarten through eighth grade to now coming into a whole new environment with more freedoms,” said Frank Acinapura. “We feel that three-year junior high school [is key] to getting freshman ready for the high school level.”
In addition to the new grade restructuring, the small learning communities’ concept would also be established into the junior high schools, giving kids an early start in education and career planning through use of career centers, which will offer opportunities for eventual employment.
“We are looking to take it to another level,” said Sanger. “[As in the high school], there will be a whole unit of support, so the kids can be serviced individually.”
With the small learning communities already taking shape at Emerson and Union Hill high schools, they will be leaders in implementing the concept to the junior high schools.
However, one of the biggest advantages to the restructuring is alleviating overcrowding not just in the junior and senior high school levels, but in the elementary schools as well. Most elementary schools now contain grades K through 8.
“It will allow us to … offer better individual services to each kids, which is our main concern,” said Sanger.
The new high school will total 345,000 square feet of space including 66 regular classrooms, a 21,000-square foot gymnasium, a 7,500-square foot performing arts auditorium with 950 seats, a 12,000-square foot media center, and a 200-space parking garage.
In addition, there will be an athletic complex on the roof of the school, and another being built at Jose Marti Middle School.
“[With the joining of the two high schools] I could see us becoming a powerhouse,” said Sanger.
“Within the next two years there will be athletic facilities in Union City we have never had,” said Anthony Dragona, business administrator for the Union City Board of Education.
As for the fourth junior high, Sanger added, the only thing left is to await funding, and acquire three pieces of property.
“We have been working hard with the SCC to move our projects forward,” said Dragona. “We are in a good position, and it’s minimal inconvenience to the neighborhood.”
The best news for the Board of Education is that even without the fourth junior high school, the restructuring plan will still be able to take affect by September of 2008.
To approve it
The new five-year plan must be approved by the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE). The Board of Education is hoping to get approval within the next four to six months.
If approved, it would give Union City at least two and half years to implement the program, train teachers, and keep an open dialogue to inform parents of what will be happening.
“It will be an ongoing and open articulation with the public to keep them abreast of the program,” said Sanger. “We’re very excited and will be trying to get everyone on board and positive. This is our role as leaders of the community, and will enable for a great transition.”