By Victoria Cepeda
It was the Fall of 1985 when I entered the Union City school district by enrolling at what was then Union Hill High School as a freshman. A foreign-born with few English words in my inventory but with a drive for learning surpassed only by some of my teachers’ determination not to let us quit. Their love for teaching and seeing us through as strong as that of a parent eager to see their children do better than them in live.
Fast forward to Summer 2013 and Union City‘s school district has made the NY Times Op Ed. How come? Because it is an example of how the persistance of very committed teachers and school officials helped overcome the odds stacked up against this poor district. David Kirp’s “The Secret to Fixing Bad School Districts” concludes that:
“The striking achievement of Union City, N.J. — bringing poor, mostly immigrant kids into the educational mainstream — argues for reinventing the public schools we have. Public schools in such communities have often operated as factories for failure. This used to be true in Union City, where the schools were once so wretched that state officials almost seized control of them. How things have changed. From third grade through high school, students’ achievement scores now approximate the statewide average. What’s more, in 2011, Union City boasted a high school graduation rate of 89.5 percent — roughly 10 percentage points higher than the national average. Last year, 75 percent of Union City graduates enrolled in college, with top students winning scholarships to the Ivies.”
This is exactly the same district with a Latino majority (84.7%), a 60% higher unemployment rate than the national average, and where Spanish is the first language of most students. Yet the district’s investment in early learning seems to be paying off.
Its state of the art Union City High School was ranked among the top 22% of NJ high schools.
I still live in Hudson County and chances are that I will die here. Why? Because I am as stubborn and bent on defeating the statistics as my adoptive home town is. In order to fix things, you must take an active role in it not just leave it behind. I am glad that Union City is beating the odds and becoming a role model for other poor school districts.
The writer of the original article, David L. Kirp, is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of the forthcoming book “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools.”
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