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A PreK-3rd Spotlight on Union City, NJ

Published:  February 11, 2013
Publication Image
Union City, NJ is located in Hudson County, NJ, across the Hudson River from New York City. The city's school system was the subject of a recent New York Times op-ed. Image from Census Bureau, via Wikipedia.

In education policy, where so much of the focus is on how much is wrong with today’s schools, it’s refreshing to see examples of something going right. In an op-ed yesterday in the New York Times, David Kirp writes about what he found after spending a year in Union City, N.J., where children are achieving at a very high rate despite coming from poverty and living in families where English is a second language.

"As someone who has worked on education policy for four decades, I've never seen the likes of this," writes Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

The op-ed continues:

Ask school officials to explain Union City’s success and they start with prekindergarten, which enrolls almost every 3- and 4-year-old. There’s abundant research showing the lifetime benefits of early education. Here, seeing is believing.

One December morning the lesson is making latkes, the potato pancakes that are a Hanukkah staple. Everything that transpires during these 90 minutes could be called a “teachable moment” — describing the smell of an onion (“Strong or light? Strong — duro. Will it smell differently when we cook it? We’ll have to find out.”); pronouncing the “p” in pepper and pimento; getting the hang of a food processor (“When I put all the ingredients in, what will happen?”).

Kirp’s essay puts a strong and well-deserving emphasis on pre-K. But as he and others have written: Pre-K is necessary but not sufficient. His op-ed shows the need for a focus on excellence throughout the PreK-12 school years, and we hope his upcoming book, Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools, will uncover more of the nuts and bolts behind this school district’s transformation.

Meanwhile, to get a preview of what happened in Union City, don’t miss the 2009 policy paper, Education Reform Starts Early: Lessons from New Jersey’s PreK-3rd Reform Efforts,written by Sara Mead, our former director here at the Early Education Initiative. As Mead explains, universal pre-K came to Union City in 1999 as the result of a court ruling known as Abbott V, which mandated that the state of New Jersey provide high-quality pre-K, full-day kindergarten, small class sizes and other “supplemental programs addressing special needs of students in poorer urban districts.” Her profile of Union City starts on page 17.

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