Tough little Union City's public school test scores and graduation rates rival those of comfortable suburbs.

But in the late 1980s, the only schools with which Union City could be said to "compete" were in troubled Camden.

While public education in Camden has won a sad race to the bottom - Trenton is taking over the city's schools - the success of Union City has inspired a laudatory new book.

Improbable Scholars (Oxford University Press) offers something of a guide for Camden and struggling school districts nationwide. It is the work of David L. Kirp, a public policy professor at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, whose 17 previous books and publications focus on education, housing, and urban issues.

The author also is an old friend of mine, and after I finished his insightful, immersive take on how urban public education can be made to work for even the poorest kids, I called him up.

"There is no quick fix, no magic solution, no miracle cure," Kirp says, "other than system-building."

His book briskly outlines the incremental, labor-intensive process Union City utilized to build a vigorous network of preschools; a "literature-rich," challenging, and consistent curriculum; and collaborative guidance for students, families, teachers, and administrators.

The Hudson County city of less than two square miles and 67,000 people - a majority of them Spanish-speaking immigrants - also merged two high schools into a single new institution that quickly rose from failing to, well, soaring (the Union City High teams are the "Soaring Eagles").

"This is a back-to-basics story," says Kirp, whose book cites smaller classes, attentive teachers, reading, and writing as the keys to the district's improvement.

Union City is also very much a local story: Many of the teachers and administrators have city roots, giving them a personal stake in the district. And even in the toughest neighborhood in town, the atmosphere at George Washington Elementary is warm and familial.

No wonder Kirp is so unimpressed with "celebrity" superintendents and "no-excuses" reformers who generally parachute down on troubled city school systems, foster a crop of admiring headlines, and then move on.

"You have to get stability into the school system, and you can't do that in just a couple of years," he says. "You have to build a culture of trust, and that's not something you just assert. It's something you earn."

The author spent many days in Union City classrooms during the 2010-11 school year, and his deep reporting (Kirp is a former newspaperman) informs the vivid portraits of students, teachers, and administrators that make Improbable Scholars compelling.

Subtitled "the rebirth of a great American school system - and a strategy for America's schools," the book eschews the partisan finger-pointing and facile outrage that often mar criticism of urban education.

Kirp is ambivalent about the time spent preparing for standardized tests, but allows that some mass measurement of student abilities is necessary.

And while Union City has no charter schools, the author is not reflexively opposed to that public education option. Nevertheless, "you can't simply charterize" a traditional public system out of existence, he says, adding that, in Camden, "charter schools have a place . . . but the public school system must be rebuilt if all the kids . . . are to have a shot at a decent education."

To that end, Improbable Scholars offers not a blueprint but an outline.

"The place to begin . . . is where the system is most potentially malleable, which is preschool, and working your way up to elementary school," Kirp says. "You have to lay the foundation. And you don't try to do everything at once."

He's no fan of state takeovers of local districts.

"But in Camden, it could be an asset," Kirp says. "That kind of shock treatment could be necessary."

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