Technology: Changing the Face of Education in Union City
Refusing to let a school district slide, teachers, the administration, parents, and community partners came together to take this district from the brink to one of the best.
As President Clinton walked to the podium in one of our classrooms that cold morning last February, I felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment when he suggested that America should integrate technology in its schools as we had already done in Union City.
My thoughts turned to the recent past when, rather than being held up as a national role model, the Union City School District was on the verge of a state takeover for failing to adequately meet minimum educational standards. Many profound changes to our educational system were necessary, but this story focuses mainly on the critical role that technology integration has played in the revival of our schools over the last six years.
A Struggling School District's Restructuring Movement
Union City, New Jersey, located just west of Manhattan in Hudson County, is one of the most densely populated urban school districts in the nation. With over 60,000 residents in a 1.4 square-mile city, the school district has eleven schools serving over 9,000 full-time students. Ninety-one percent are Latino and 2 percent are other linguistic/ethnic minorities. About 75 percent do not speak English at home, 36 percent are enrolled in the district's bilingual/ESL program, and over 16 percent have been in this country for less than three years. In addition, 79 percent of our students receive free or reduced lunches.
Union City typifies many inner-city public schools in all ways except one, which is the quality of the educational program that is now offered.
What we call the restructuring movement began in July 1989. This was a five-year plan to completely change the face of education in our district. After an exhaustive review of available research, the standing elementary curriculum committee made an official recommendation to the Board of Education in January 1990.
Critical elements of the adopted recommendation include changing the role of the teacher and a moving away from traditional textbooks. It is now expected that teachers will help all students be readers and writers. Additionally, teachers provide many opportunities for students to take risks as they guide them in making choices. Most important, they encourage their students to accept the primary responsibility for the learning process. Extended to all areas of the instructional program, this approach provides students with hands-on experiential education in math, science, history, and fine, performing, and applied arts.
Other aspects of the plan focus on the structure and management of the classroom. Viewing time in the traditional isolated periods of thirty-seven to forty minutes did not allow for the implementation of the new strategies. Over a three-year period, the day at the K-8 level has been restructured into blocks of time. During the new 148-minute block time, students are not pulled out of class. Instead, additional teachers come in, creating teams of teachers. The English teachers of old have become the communications/social studies teachers of the new curriculum; they are now able to cover social studies, research techniques, and reading and writing in the longer periods of time. And now these teachers are collaborating with math/science teachers to form an interdisciplinary team.
The critical change from mainly a textbook-based instructional philosophy to a more open, student-centered, investigative approach where everyone is working cooperatively led to important changes throughout the district and paved the way for the successful infusion of technology into the way we teach and the way we learn.
Response to literature, hands-on science, research, and math applications now require small groups and instant access to large quantities of multiple sources of information. The entrance of Bell Atlantic in 1992 provided the avenue to get connected.
The Christopher Columbus Middle School, with seventh and eighth grades, was the first site of our business partnership with Bell Atlantic and the Center for Children and Technology (CCT). The partnership, known locally as Project Explore, has been in operation since September 1993 and was extended to ninth graders at Emerson High School in September 1995. Bell Atlantic provided the necessary communications technologies and infrastructure: seventy computers with Internet access in school and an additional 135 computers to each participating seventh grader at home.
Inner-city homes became the largest libraries in the world. Groups, through e-mail, no longer had to finish by the 3 o'clock bell; drafts of reports could be e-mailed in seconds to all group members. Learning without walls became a reality. CCT continues assisting with teacher training by documenting our work, and securing additional federal funding to extend the project scope and reach.
In groups, students can now research a given state-mandated proficiency requirement through multiple sources, including the Internet. For example, in the seventh-grade course of study for the first marking period, the theme is Bravery and Revolution. A social studies proficiency standard requires students to know the causes of the American Revolution, and (through careful teacher planning) other proficiency standards are met in the process of meeting this goal.
Divided into cooperative groups, several are assigned to read various commercial textbooks and list the principal causes with supporting details. Another group is required to research the same information using CD-ROMs. Still other groups will use the Internet to access relevant information. The groups then meet and create a prioritized list of causes. They input their information into their electronic portfolios after having their work edited by their peers, and each group presents its findings to the whole class. The class as a whole determines what is important to know about the major causes of the American Revolution. Students then develop their final multimedia presentations with supporting charts, graphics, and video and/or audio clips.
Commenting on this process, a teacher in our district says, "It is great to see how the dynamics of the group bring out the leadership qualities in students with computer expertise and the ability to work the Internet -- leadership qualities that without this opportunity might have remained hidden."
With the introduction of technology, what had begun to go well began to soar. Standardized test scores rose each year until they now meet or exceed state and national norms at all elementary grades (spring 1995 results). On the New Jersey EWT (Early Warning Test), Union City eighth graders pass at twice the rate of other urban students in the state. At Columbus school, they pass at rates exceeding the state average. More important, average scores are up each year, and more students are enrolling in honors classes at the high school.
Parental involvement has also increased: Ninety-seven percent attended a recent parent night at Columbus. Teachers and students both feel they control the educational process as a joint adventure, and school improvement teams request more access through technology as their highest priority.
I felt very excited that day in February realizing that the President was here to acknowledge our story of success in an inner city. My wish would be to give all dedicated educators the same opportunity to succeed as we had, with tremendous assistance through business partners like Bell Atlantic and CCT, a staff committed to change, and a community who trusted us to try new and unproven ideas (back in 1989).
At the same time, I am sure that in adapted forms, most school districts could easily implement the heart of this successful model. The key is to remember that technology is a tool -- the new pencil or chalkboard. Its successful infusion is dependent upon having clear educational principles shared by all and having the educational structures in place so that the benefits of technology can be realized.