The American Dream in Union City, N.J.

January 01, 1996 8 min read
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In the corner of a small, bright room decorated with basketball posters and anatomy charts, a printer pumps out a replica of the El Salvadorian flag. As the first band of blue emerges, Luciano Calles beams, smiling at his wife and two sons. “Play the national anthem now,’' he tells 14-year-old Juan. “I couldn’t imagine it--being able to hear my national anthem on the computer,’' says Calles, who emigrated from El Salvador with his wife in 1980. “It brought tears to my eyes.’'

That was more than two years ago, but the personal computer, equipped with color graphics and voice capabilities, that Juan was given in the summer of 1993 through an unusual school program sponsored by Bell Atlantic still amazes Calles and his family.

The principal goal of the pilot program was to see how inner-city schoolchildren would perform if they had access to technology both at school and in the home. The phone com-pany gave PCs to all 135 7th graders at the Christopher Columbus Middle School in Union City, N.J. It also provided several computers for each of the school’s 7th and 8th grade classrooms and for about 20 teachers and administrators to use at home.

Known as the Union City Interactive Media Trial, the project provides basic software and other programs that let students and their teachers communicate with each other, conduct on-line research, and in other ways collaborate in the learning process. The PCs are loaded with Microsoft Works, a word-processing program; Encarta, an electronic encyclopedia; and LotusNotes, which provides electronic mail and database capabilities. At school, students can tap into the Internet through a local Bell Atlantic server.

Juan’s class, which is now in 9th grade at Emerson High School, was the only group of Union City students to receive the computers. The Calleses, like many of the other families that got the computers, created a special place in their home for the new addition. Juan’s family converted one of the five rooms in their apartment into what is essentially an office, complete with two desks, reference books, study lamps, and a phone.

This year, Juan is in all honors classes, and his parents attribute his academic success largely to his technology-rich environment. “He’s not the same student he was two or three years ago,’' says his father. “He was indifferent; now he is motivated, and his grades show that.’'

The computer has also brought the family closer together. Juan and his 10th grade brother, Daniel, have taught their father and mother how to write letters, peruse the multimedia encyclopedia, use e-mail to communicate with teachers, and access Columbus Middle School’s on-line newsletter. “The computer is a connection between all of us,’' Calles says. “It’s something more I can share with my sons.’'

The project has given Bell Atlantic an opportunity to test its telecommunications technology--specifically phone lines capable of delivering voice, video images, and other media--in a school environment. “Modems on steroids’’ is how John Grady, the project’s founder, describes the technology, which is similar to a video-on-demand project Bell is currently testing in northern Virginia. But instead of connecting multimedia to a television as that program is doing, the Integrated Services Digital Network delivers information through a personal computer. The network makes it possible for students, parents, and teachers to communicate among each other and to access information around the clock.

Building the network and making it cost-effective was a trial-and-error process that involved wiring, and then rewiring, homes and the school to determine which high-speed cable was most appropriate for this particular market. “One of our objectives is to find an affordable product,’' says Kathleen Tully, education manager for Bell Atlantic New Jersey’s external affairs office. “If you want to sell something to a school district, you want to make sure it’s worthwhile for them to spend their precious dollars on.’'

Originally slated as a two-year pilot, the project has been extended through 1997. This will allow Union City educators to monitor the results of Juan’s class through the 10th grade and to expand the proj-ect to other schools.

So far, the test data are encouraging. In 1994 and 1995, 8th graders at Christopher Columbus had a better passing rate on a statewide test designed to detect academic trouble spots than those at any other district school. What’s more, the passing rate was nearly double that of comparable urban districts in New Jersey.

Union City looks across the Hudson River toward New York City and the Empire State Building. Although its population is thought to be the densest in the nation--more than 87,000 residents packed into 1.4 square miles--the working-class community has a clean and orderly feel. “You look around, and you won’t see any graffiti or broken glass,’' observes Fred Carrigg, the district’s director of academic programs. “It’s not like the ghetto. People here still believe in the American Dream.’'

Seven years ago, student academic achievement in Union City was so poor that the state threatened to take over the district. Today, however, its 11 schools and more than 8,500 students represent something akin to an American success story. District officials proudly tick off the improvements: attendance for both students and teachers is above the state average, the mobility rate for the district has dropped from 44 percent to 22 percent (12 percent at Columbus Middle School), and elementary students are exceeding state and national test norms.

Many officials, including U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, have traveled here to see how this poor, overwhelmingly Hispanic city has managed to resurrect itself. The Bell Atlantic program is an important contributing factor, but just one of many, school officials are quick to point out.

In the summer of 1989, Carrigg set in motion a massive restructuring of the entire education system. Central to the effort was a shift from traditional textbook-based instruction to a whole language, project-based curriculum. Rather than purchasing one set of textbooks, the district bought a limited number of a range of texts for students to use, share, and compare. At the same time, the district decided to invest heavily in instructional technology, purchasing some 775 Macintosh computers between 1990 and 1994 and bringing the student-computer ratio down to 11 to 1, well below the state average.

In addition, the school day was restructured into longer periods, cooperative learning was introduced, classes were redesigned to be cross-curricular, and teachers were encouraged to act more like coaches than traditional instructors.

Funding for all this came from several sources. In 1988, the municipality passed a $27- million bond issue to renovate the district’s antiquated schools. In 1990, the state passed the Quality Education Act, which authorized the transfer of funds from wealthier districts to poor districts like Union City. Due to changes in eligibility requirements, Union City also began receiving federal Title I funds. As students and parents became more engaged in the schools, vandalism plummeted, Carrigg says, freeing up millions of dollars that have been plowed into educational technology.

The icing on the cake came in 1992 when Bell Atlantic chose the district for its pilot project. The Bell initiative was, in part, a response to the 1992 Telecommunications Act of New Jersey, which created important financial and regulatory incentives for companies to disseminate advanced technology throughout the state, particularly in education.

Eager for corporate partners, Union City school officials welcomed the Bell project. The district had recently purchased an old parochial school to house Columbus Middle School, so Bell technicians were able to wire the building before students and teachers moved in. The project and the new school were launched together in September 1993. Bell officials won’t reveal how much the company has spent on the project, but Tully says, “It has involved significant resources--in the millions.’'

Although Carrigg raves about the Bell experiment, he also says it’s important to keep it in perspective. “Technology is a tool, not a philosophy,’' he says. “It facilitates something else. You can’t isolate it; it’s meaningless unless it’s integrated into the curriculum.’'

His Bell Atlantic colleagues agree. “You can’t throw technology against the wall and expect it to stick,’' says Rahman Karriem, application manager of distance learning at Bell. “You have to develop internal human infrastructure to make it work.’'

One way the district is developing its “human infrastructure’’ is through Parent University. Launched in 1994, the “university’’ is essentially a collection of district-sponsored workshops offered several afternoons a week to teach parents about computers and software. One of the goals is to strengthen the home-school computer link. If parents don’t know how the technology works, the program cannot serve its purpose.

Over the next three years, the Bell Atlantic project will grow beyond Christopher Columbus to other schools in Union City thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Ultimately, it is critical for the district to become technologically self-sufficient, says Margaret Honey, associate director at the New York-based Center for Children and Technology, which helped the district secure the NSF grant. “When a large corporation says it’s going to hook 10,000 schools up to the Internet, that’s great, but what does it mean?’' she asks. “The superhighway is not about content--it’s about promoting ownership, where educators are defining the resources that are relevant to their classrooms.’'

Technological independence may not be too far off for Union City. Carrigg is working with technicians at Lotus to design a computerized curricular database that will also function as an electronic forum for teachers and administrators.

As for schools in other districts, Tully of Bell Atlantic predicts that her company’s networking technology will be available by the end of the decade. When and if these products actually become affordable for schools depends to some degree on the complex telecommunications legislation wending its way through Congress. The primary question is whether schools will be guaranteed discounted access to the telecommunications services that make programs like Union City’s feasible.

“I hope this school will be replicated in every district and state in the country,’' Columbus principal Robert Fazio says.

“I want every school to experience what we have. This is education.’'

--Megan Drennan

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as The American Dream in Union City, N.J.


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