David Kirp says lessons learned in this Latino community offer a narrative of hope

Editor’s note: In his new book, Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for American Education, UC Berkeley Professor David Kirp chronicles how a poor urban district transports Latino immigrant children into the education mainstream. In Kirp’s words…

THE DOMINANT NARRATIVE is that public schools are hopeless bureaucracies, not really serving kids, with educators just serving their time. I spent a year in Union City, New Jersey. I went to classrooms. I saw some solid teaching, some good teaching and some really inspired teaching. I didn’t see time-serving teaching.

I hung out in third grade, with mostly Latino kids preparing for a standardized test. I met community groups very connected to school.

Union City is four miles from Times Square, but you might as well be on a different planet. Unemployment is over 13 percent. It has a heavily immigrant population, mostly from Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Puerto Rico.

Three-quarters of the kids grow up with Spanish spoken at the dinner table. Maybe a third are here without papers, so they are living in fear that ICE will take them and their families. Twenty-five years ago, Union City schools were as bad as any other school with those demographics.

Here’s why you want to pay attention to this place:

  • Test scores are at or above the rest of the state.
  • The graduation rate is 90 percent.
  • Even for kids who come here as teenagers and can’t write their names, the graduation rate is 50 percent.

How did they do it? There is no Michelle Rhee in this story, no one with a broom sweeping out the superintendent. You didn’t have teachers being fired. You didn’t have charters open. Instead you have a system of support for kids and parents that begins at preschool and ends at college. Nothing they did is unfamiliar to any educator with a pulse. There is nothing faddish or fancy.

…you have a system of support for kids and parents that begins at preschool and ends at college. Nothing they did is unfamiliar to any educator with a pulse.

They did have money; the courts had required districts to fund two years of preschool education. That’s crucial, bedrock stuff.

These kids need a strong bilingual education. They need fluency in the home language then they transition to English. That’s what linguists — not ideologues — will tell you. These kids are going to be truly bilingual.

The curriculum is developed by locals — teachers-turned-principals who studied what worked. Every year, teachers revise the curriculum.

The students are assessed regularly in addition to the annual state test. They slice the data as to where the students’ weaknesses are and use it to support teachers. Time is set aside each day for teachers to work together.

Parents are very connected to these schools. One rainy night, 90 percent of the kids had some adult show up at school. I know how hard it is to engage poor parents and I wondered, ‘how did this happen?’

It happened because their community liaisons really are liaisons. They get people on the job list and the housing list. They get the parents to realize, ‘you not only should do something, but you have to do something.’ This is a system that sets very high expectations for everybody.

You watch the teachers, the principals at the schools. You just get this warmth, respect and trust. It boils down to one word – trust – building trust-based relationships. There is no secret sauce.

You can do a lot even with a little. The one thing that has to be in place is stability. The positive message here is: It’s hard work, but this is what can be done if parents, administrators and community work together for the kids.

— Reported by Jane Hundertmark, CFT Publications Director