Erin Gavin: Union City Public Schools provide a model of early literacy education

Situated just 16 miles outside of New York City, Union City Public Schools in Union City, New Jersey, serve nearly 11,000 students. The overwhelming majority of these students are students of color, live in poverty, and speak a language other than English at home. Too many districts with demographics like these fail to provide students with excellent educations.

Sue Braithwaite, District Literacy Specialist in St. Paul Public Schools, with Union City kindergarteners.

Sue Braithwaite, District Literacy Specialist in St. Paul Public Schools, with Union City kindergarteners.

But demographics are not destiny. Union City proves this, boasting students who consistently achieve above their state’s averages in math and reading assessments. And nearly 100% of Union City’s students graduate from high school on time.

This fall, McKnight’s Education & Learning program staff and Urban Education Institute partners traveled to Union City with representatives from grantees Saint Paul, Minneapolis, and Brooklyn Center Public Schools and Community of Peace Academy and Academia Cesar Chavez charter schools. Together, we aimed to better understand how Union City’s staff and students achieve such sustained academic excellence so we can translate these learnings to our own schools and classrooms.

During our visit, Superintendent Stanley Sanger explained three key ingredients behind Union City’s success: stability, continuity, and long-term investment. These factors showed up throughout Union City’s policies and practices, and also as subtle but powerful indicators of a culture in which students, staff, and community members feel both driven to succeed and supported in doing so.

Stability in operations: During and after our visit with Union City public schools, McKnight’s district grantees observed:

Union City Public Schools, Urban Education Institute, and McKnight staff during a 2013 site visit.

Union City Public Schools, Urban Education Institute, and McKnight staff during a 2013 site visit.

  • In an era in which an average urban school superintendent’s tenure is under three years, Stanley Sanger has led the Union City Public Schools for more than 10. He’s also a graduate and 40-year veteran of the district.
  • Union City’s long-serving mayor appoints the school board, which seems to help maintain a governing body with minimal churn.
  • Teacher turnover is rare in Union City, although nationally 50% of teachers leave the profession within 5 years. One Union City teacher described herself as “honored” to serve in a district that couples high expectations with high-level support for staff, students, and families.

Continuity across ages and locations: Students, staff, and families in Union City experience unparalleled continuity and seamless supports from Pre-kindergarten through 12th grade:

  • In partnership with 35 community-based providers, Union City offers PreK to all 3- and 4-year-olds in the district, and ensures that the PreK experience tightly aligns with K-12.
  • Because of these intentional partnerships, the district better understands its PreK to elementary “feeder patterns,” or the flow from school to school that students follow. Principals meet with PreK program directors several times each year, and PreK classes are invited to take part in activities at their future elementary schools.
  • Select Union City teachers meet each summer to refine the district’s teacher-created curriculum. Teachers across grades and schools ensure tight horizontal and vertical alignment of all skills and content.
  • The district intentionally provides continuity between home and school by reinforcing dual language approaches in its classrooms. Nearly every Union City teacher is bilingual.
Union City Public Schools 3rd-grade classroom.

Union City Public Schools 3rd-grade classroom.

Long-term investments: Union City clearly invests in its people. Our grantees found evidence of Union City’s long-term investment in many places:

  • PreK teachers, even those in community-based programs, receive the same pay, curriculum, and professional development opportunities as Union City’s K-12 teachers.
  • The district provides the same professional development to paraprofessionals as it does to teachers, and it supports its most promising paraprofessionals in earning teaching licenses.
  • Every Union City teacher receives full financial support in earning a masters degree in a high-needs area such as second language or literacy instruction.
  • Each school and PreK program works with several master teachers or coaches who support teachers in implementing the district curriculum and designing instructional approaches in response to frequently collected student data.
  • School and classroom walls are festooned with student work, further reinforcing the message that students and their learning are valued.

I look forward to working with our partners in the Twin Cities to leverage our learnings from Union City in our own schools and districts. We have our work cut out for us and our region faces some unique challenges in terms of achievement gaps and more. But seeing success in action is proof positive that demographics are not destiny — and if Union City can achieve success through stability, continuity, and long-term investments, so can we.


Related Links


GavinHeadshotErin Gavin
Education & Learning Program & Policy Officer