The Transformation of Union City: 1989 to Present

August 1, 2000

Union City, New Jersey, located directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan, is the most densely populated city in the United States (42,000 residents per square mile). Its ethnic makeup is predominantly Cuban, although recent arrivals from the Caribbean, Central and South America, as well as longtime Italian residents add to the diversity of the population. Of the approximately 10,000 students in its eleven schools (three elementary, five K8, one middle school, and two high schools), 92 percent are Latino; 75 percent of the student body do not speak English at home; and 14 percent have been in this country for less than three years. Over one-third of its faculty teach in bilingual/ESL programs. The Brookings Institute classifies Union City as one of the 92 most impoverished communities in the United States; 27.5 percent of all children live below the poverty line, and 82 percent receive free or reduced-price lunches (as of 1998).

In 1989, the Union City school district was the second-worst-performing district in the state of New Jersey. The district had failed 44 of 52 indicators the State of New Jersey uses to determine the efficacy of school systems (e.g., student attendance, dropout and transfer rates, scores on standardized tests), and the state threatened to take over governance unless radical and successful restructuring was implemented within five years.

The school board, naturally, preferred to retain local control and begin a drastic reformation of the entire educational system. It turned to those supervisors whose departments had not been cited for violations: Tom Highton, principal of the Gifted and Talented School, and Fred Carrigg, Supervisor of Bilingual/ESL Education. Highton and Carrigg were given new titles, Superintendent, and Executive Director for Academic Programs, and new responsibilities. Before accepting the new positions, however, Highton and Carrigg negotiated unprecedented power over budget lines, appointments, curriculum, schedules, and more. They faced multiple obstacles to improving education, including language barriers, parents with limited formal education, and students with little incentive to stay in school; their careers would be at stake. The Board agreed to the reformers' requests, because their positions, too, were on the line, and everyone in the district knew that to turn the school system around, radical change was necessary.

Five years later, Union City's scores on the state's eighth-grade readiness test were superior to those of its urban counterparts by as much as 20 percentage points. The New York Times called the system -- an inspiring example for troubled districts elsewhere -- (New York Times, Editorial, August 1995).

This report charts the school district's remarkable transformation and the factors that contributed to its success. A condensed version of the report is also included.