Renowned education policy expert David Kirp spent a year crisscrossing the country, looking for game-changing programs in some pretty unlikely places, including neighborhoods so rough that barbed wire surrounded the playgrounds. On his journey, he stumbled upon the Union City School District, and used it as fodder for his new book, Kids First. Then he showed his respect by spending this past year in the district to learn the key to its success.
At his book signing Wednesday at Union City High School, Kirp spoke to educators about his experience within the district, relating that he sees its success as encapsulated in the fable of the tortoise and the hare.
“There is no great transformative idea,” he said. “The district did it step by step by step, and by continuing to pay attention to the small things…incremental change.”
“Union City has kept its eye on the ball for years.” – David Kirp
This past year’s experience within the district will be included in a future book by Kirp.
In Kids First, Kirp shows the benefit of investing in children’s futures, from the cradle to college – a focus on “the whole kid.”
Steeped in a guiding principal – Every child deserves what’s good enough for a child you love – Kirp identifies five potential game-changers in the lives of children and vignettes from programs that have thrived under the same basic principles.
The “Kids First” agenda, as detailed in the book, includes strong support for new parents, high-quality early education, linking schools and communities to improve what they offer children, giving all kids access to a caring and stable adult mentor, and providing kids a nest egg to help pay for college or kick start a career.
InKids First, Kirp highlights a pre-K class at Hostos Center for Early Childhood Education as a model for the rest of the nation. Further investigation into the district led Kirp to state that “Union City exemplifies the best of early education. This is as good as it gets in America.”
Funding full-day pre-K
In 1998, a state Supreme Court decision that ordered the state to fund half-day high-quality preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state’s poorest districts was expanded by then-Gov. Christie Whitman to full-day preschool.
Requirements were included such as teachers holding bachelor’s degrees and low student-teacher ratios, under the sentiment that “preschool without quality is just high-cost day care” put forth by state official Gordon MacInnes.
Hotly under debate, though – especially in the face of recent state budget cuts –is the value of pre-K programs, and whether their funding translates to success.
Though Gov. Christie’s proposed budget for next year leaves funding for the pre-K program untouched, a proposal by some Assembly Republicans – to slice pre-K funding in half and divert the $300 million saved to cash-strapped
suburban schools – could present a renewed threat.
Currently, the Union City School District has roughly 1,800 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in the Abbott School Preschool Program, and annually outperforms other aid-recipient districts in terms of student achievement.
The Union City School District and the aid-receiving but underperforming Trenton School District are often compared to highlight the two sides of the “does-funding-equal-success?” argument.
“With Trenton as an example, money isn’t the only thing,” Kirp said. “But you can also make the case that if you don’t have the money, you can’t do it.”
Stats work against UC kids, but…
In Kids First, Kirp cites all of the reasons why Union City could – reasonably – be expected to fail. It’s one of the 92 poorest cities in the nation, with most of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches; at least 87 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches; most enter school speaking only Spanish; half are diagnosed with special needs… the list goes on.
“These are society’s disposable kids, and they’re not expected to make it,” Kirp said. “But someone forgot to tell Union City. Their kids are making it.”
The district’s success with its pre-K program, according to Kirp, can be attributed to “the meticulousness with which it has been put in place,” such as its district-wide curriculum in line with state standards that emphasizes early literacy, and frequent coaching, evaluation, feedback, and support for teachers.
But what left Kirp even more impressed was the district’s “skill in weaving together the public system with a whole array of private providers,” or as he described it on Wednesday, “building scaffolding with a community centerpiece.”
The linkage between home and school was established with four additional hours of child care daily, parenting classes, a district-employed parent liaison, and a doctor in the preschools who does health screenings and vaccinations.
This “weaving together” of worlds is especially important, according to Kirp, because “these parents are not living a ‘you can drop the kid of at 8 and pick them up at 12’- kind of life.”
The results are in
Test results don’t lie. Union City students, most of whom are first-generation immigrants raised in Spanish-speaking homes, are doing as well on the state’s third- and eighth-grade reading and math tests as the average student.
This past year, Kirp has particularly focused upon third grade – the first high-stakes test year – as well as kids learning English, and special education.
“I spent some time at Union Hill and my eyes have been opened by what special education means,” he said Wednesday.
As for the high school, said Kirp, “the top science students are astonishing. They receive early decision to MIT, Yale. They’re winners of national contests.” (Watch for a future article about those high-achieving students.)
“The only districts that have done as well have been much smaller districts,” he continued. “Union City has built a system of support early on from parents to teachers…it’s kept its eye on the ball for years.”
There’s no doubt that, in Kirp’s eyes, Union City will continue on its path of excellence if the pre-K funding remains intact.
But if the Assembly Republicans get their way, he said, “I think we’d begin to see the impact on achievement in a few years as test results come in.”
Kirp sees the passage of their proposal as a remote possibility, as he doesn’t believe the legislature would pass it or that it would ever survive court challenge.
But for those still considering it, he leaves this thought: “If you put your mind to the job of improving the education of these kids…nudging them into thinking about college and beyond, you’ll see slow improvements. But it’s vulnerable, always vulnerable. You have to keep investing in the kids from age 3, on.”
Deanna Cullen can be reached at email@example.com.