George Lucas Educational Foundation

Trading in Books for Bytes: Union City Public Schools

It took time, teacher buy-in, and technology, but this urban school district in New Jersey has gone from dismal to dazzling. More to this story.
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Trading in Books for Bytes: Union City Public Schools (Transcript)

Teacher: Do you know where Chicago is?

All: Yes.

Teacher: Yes, oh wonderful, where is Chicago?

Narrator: In the past few years, hundreds of educators from around the country, like this group of teachers from Chicago, have made the pilgrimage to Union City in New Jersey, a predominantly Hispanic blue collar neighborhood, just across the river from Manhattan.

Teacher: See, she's got a folder on the server and she would save it. These are all the projects that she's done.

Narrator: Visitors come here to check out elementary and high school classes, to talk with students and teachers.

Teacher: Do you have sound effects on yours?

Student: Yes.

Teacher: Can I see?

Narrator: They experience first hand this minor miracle of public education, a school system that was on the brink of being taken over by the state, and is now one of New Jersey's top performing districts.

Fred: The reason we got in trouble in nineteen eighty-nine was because we had some of the lowest test scores in the state. They began to improve almost immediately with the changes that took place. Right now, among New Jersey's cities, we have the highest test scores.

Narrator: The changes that drove the district's stunning turnaround included a focus on early literacy.

Student: This story's about a girl named Jenny--

Narrator: A shift away from drills to project based learning.

Teacher: Or you can feed it out--

Narrator: And the infusion of technology in every facet of the curriculum.

Computer: Buzz, buzz, said the fly.

Narrator: These initiatives grew out of the faculty's core belief that all education should center on the child.

Man: The initial plan called for beginning with kindergarten and first grade teachers, with a recognition that they already were, by nature, child-centered because of the age of the children they were working with.

Lorraine: We want to do all upper case, okay.

It's more student centered, as opposed to teacher centered, so the children are pretty much running the show. We serve as facilitators, and help them and get them through whatever questions they have. They are also taught to work with each other and technology is wonderful also, 'cause we incorporate that into the curriculum. The children know so much.

Computer: Frog's eyes grew big. "Mmm, lunch," said Frog.

Narrator: Like other districts, Union City has budget constraints. At Hudson Elementary, cafeteria workers share a basement space with the reading lab cluster. But the district has received some significant technology grants and they've learned to maximize their resources.

Fred: None of this happens without money, but a lot of that can be and should be a restructuring of how money is expended. Sometimes you actually can do more with less. We expend very little money on textbooks. We spend a lot of money on children's literature and resource materials.

Teacher: Cecilia, continue reading.

Student: Black and--

Narrator: Starting the techno revolution in the early grades by spending money on computers instead of textbooks, the district moved toward a project based curriculum, with research done on the web, and in the process, it created a committed band of change agents, a crop of students who thought about education in a new way.

Fred: The first students coming up didn't remember the old way. So when they came into the high school en masse, that was very helpful, because when teachers would try to return them to roles and the old fashioned way, the kids just didn't understand, and were extremely uncomfortable, and began to say, "Well, we've always had more independence, we've done it differently. We've been able to do internet research," and they became a force for change.

Ela: How did you do this effect around the photographs?

Andrea: I feathered five percent.

If you have to research something, instead of spending numerous hours in the library and going through encyclopedias, you can just research something online, and it's more interactive. All of our classes use technology, no matter whether it's science, gym, math. We all use technology somehow, it's all incorporated, and it helps us learn, 'cause it makes it easier.

Ela: Did you try testing this in IE to see how it looks?

Narrator: Even though they had participated in designing the new web based curriculum, many teachers were surprised by the impact of wired classrooms.

Marjorie: I was a very traditional teacher. I stood up in the front of my room, at my lectern. I had my prepared notes. I knew what I wanted them to have, and I gave it to them. The internet just broke down the walls of my classroom. We could go anywhere, we could look up anything. It was no longer a, "That's a good question, I'll come back with the answer tomorrow." Well, why tomorrow? We'll get the answer right now.

Ela: What you're creating is a movie.

Student: Right.

Ela: But you could also create it in a QuickTime format.

When I first began, I used the old method of blackboard and chalk, which I'm allergic to anyway, and as the years evolved, we moved more into technology and really facilitate not only my teaching, but my record keeping and contacting parents and keeping abreast with the students' work, and more online and more on task, and more interactivity between the students, the home and me, the teacher.

Student: I need a flat head, small one.

Narrator: At Emerson High School, the student tech team teaches teachers how to use software, and repairs the school's hardware.

Student: That's in, and I just put the keyboard back.

Narrator: Another group of students is building websites to be used by teachers in presenting various class subjects.

Student: We're each working on like individual websites that will tie with other classes. We're doing it with our history class and I'm doing it, my website's over there, on the Industrial Revolution, and he's doing it on--

Student: Another world.

Student: Discovery of the New World.

Narrator: While another group is working on a national project exploring technologies of the future.

Ela: They're researching, how would internet two be utilized? How would virtual reality be utilized? And so his graphic is all original. It's tremendous skills. As a matter of fact, this is his free time, and he chooses to come here, instead of eating or doing something else.

Narrator: A program that provided laptops for seventh graders had a profound impact not only on students, but on their families as well. Ana Calles still remembers the day her son brought the first computer home.

Ana: I never touch a computer before. You know, for me, that was amazing to see how the computer work. And my children, they were so happy. Even my husband-- in reality, there was a big party at home, and from that day, Juan started changing.

Juan: I was more of a mediocre student, a little bit apathetic towards my students. But once the computer was implemented in the curriculum and in my house, I discovered that, you know this is a tool for me to use in order to get me interested into my studies, and I did just that.

Narrator: Today, Mrs. Calles is enrolled in a BA program at Montclair University, while Juan is a senior at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Juan: Last year, I worked at IBM and I worked in the VLSI department, the very large scale integration department. And I would like to think that the curriculum at Union CD served as a catalyst for me to make the decision to go into the field of technology.

Teacher: Ah, neat, it seems like something right off of a web page.

Narrator: At the end of their visit, the teachers from Chicago got a chance to see the kind of work Union City High School students produce.

Teacher: Now you also set up the speed that it's moving.

Student: Yeah.

Teacher: The timing that it's refreshing.

Student: The timing, yeah, yeah.

Teacher: This is great.

Narrator: And the experience confirmed their impressions about this extraordinary district.

Teacher: And you came up with these?

Student: Yeah.

Teacher: Man, this is--

Student: From what I discussed in my English class and what I can write with my--

Student: I can say that when I came as a freshman, I was all shy and, you know, I guess that was my personality. But once you become a part of something, and then, you know, you're trusted with a project or something, then you start to open up, and then all of a sudden, you blossom, and then you could be a team leader. And that's what's good about all these programs.

Kareem: I want to take back their enthusiasm for learning. I've asked many of the students, how do they feel when they come to school? When they're away from school, how do they feel about the projects or the assignments that they're working on? And they feel wonderful about it. They have a very positive attitude towards it, and these children feel that this is something that's very much a part of their character, and this has been instilled in them at a very early age, in elementary schools. And they really believe in what they're being taught, and the freedoms that they've been given, and I applaud that tremendously, and I feel very proud of them.

Student: I know something about it, 'cause I went there and I saw how they treat everything, but I think I need some more-- a little bit more to learn.

Teacher: It's great, I'm impressed, man. This is really nice.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to

Get Video
Embed Code Embed Help

You are welcome to embed this video, download it for personal use, or use it in a presentation for a conference, class, workshop, or free online course, so long as a prominent credit or link back to Edutopia is included. If you'd like more detailed information about Edutopia's allowed usages, please see the Licenses section of our Terms of Use.


Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Sara Armstrong
  • Leigh Iacobucci


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Dominic Orlando
  • John Gullotta

Production Assistant:

  • Miwa Yokoyama


  • Kris Welch
  • © 2003
  • The George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • All rights reserved.

Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Speakman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If a school district such as Union City with limited resources transform its program, improve test scores, and become a model school for the nation, we can really take WSD to the next level.

I was impressed with the positive attitude of both teachers and studnets. They were willing to break down the walls of the traditional classroom, and create a school centered on the student by implementing technology.

Stephanie Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Job well done! Very impressive work you are accomplishing with the use of technology. Enjoyed viewing your video. Especially pick this one to view for my class as I am originally from New Jersey and wanted to see what my home state was doing in education.

Your students seem to be very involved and glad to see a parent doing so as well. Hats off to you for really taking technology in education to a higher level.

Isabel Marisy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Congratulations to Union City!

I know that through the vision of Mr. Fred Carigg and the willingness of his district to support his vision for educational reform, Union City has reached the top.

I am a former grad student of Mr. Carigg and have never forgotten the valuable lessons he taught me.

Monica Sierra's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am finding the more I study towards my credital I am finding that the schools back east such as Emmerson School are way beyond in technology than the western schools. I think this is fabulous that the students are partaking in learning how to use the technology and fix the equipment. I believe more schools should invest in technology because this is where the students find interesting. They can use their sensory funcions to see, hear, and feel as they learn. The students just light up when they are telling you what they have learned on the computer.

acier inoxydable's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Congrats Union city, very good job !

i was a student and i think it's a necessity ! I expekt fred is supporting this reform, it will be so useful !!

Thanks for making things evolute in the right way !

Tony Roque 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The use of technology and project based learning is an inspiration to the way things should be done in the modern class room. The success that this district has had should inspire other to follow suit. I don't think that the traditional method of teaching is without its merits but change needs to occur to have students adapt to a changing society.

Sara Garrison's picture

Adapting to the ever changing world is a requirement for educators. However, I am very hesitant about strictly using technology. I beleive there should be a balance, but I understand that students are more apt to earn if they get to use technology.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.