In urban Union City, few parents can afford the personalized tutoring sessions and SAT preparation courses for their children that often propel wealthier students into the most esteemed of colleges.
Considering the odds stacked against the district’s students, the word “thwarted” is an SAT word they could relate to. But the Union City School District long ago replaced “thwarted” with “laudable,” graduating Ivy League-bound students year after year.
Much of the credit goes to the woman with, as Principal David Wilcomes puts it, “the formula” – science teacher and Project SEED mentor Nadia Makar.
“We’re working together as a team [here in Union City], and that’s what makes a difference.” – Nadia Makar
“She has the innate ability to get people to help our kids,” Wilcomes said. “She’s given [the kids] an opportunity they might have not had otherwise.”
But Makar, her students realize, is more than a door-opener. She’s willing to jump through hoops for them. And they, in turn, share the good news of their college acceptances immediately upon receipt. They share a few years later the good news of their acceptance into a prestigious doctoral program, and a few years after that, they share the good news of their wedding (and could she please attend?)
Project SEED is a program administered by the American Chemical Society (ACS) “to assure that students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds have opportunities to experience the challenges and rewards of chemically related sciences” through hands-on research during the summer in a laboratory setting, and through access to mentorships, competitions, meetings, and scholarship opportunities.
The way Makar describes it, she has a sixth sense that helps her to handpick students destined for success in fields relating to science and math. Her job is to provide them with the map.
“She has this knack of pushing kids to reach their potential,” Wilcomes said.
Nowhere was that more apparent than when former mentee of Makar’s was inducted into the Union City Hall of Fame on Thursday night. When the student started in the high school as a sophomore, she spoke no English. But thanks to Makar’s mentorship, over 20 years later she’s now the head orthopedic surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania.
“If you were to write about everybody [Makar has helped]…it would take forever,” said SEED student and senior Emma Russo. “We’re blessed here at Union City.”
Success here, it seems, is never ending. Last month, students in the SEED program placed extremely well in a countywide science fair, with SEED member Carolina Pelaez representing the county next month at the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, in Los Angeles.
“It was nice to hear Union City, McNair, Union City, McNair,” Wilcomes said, proud of being referred to alongside a top-tier magnet school.
Ivy League Class of 2015
A Yale-bound student, an MIT-bound student, and a Brown-bound student sit in a room. Two hours pass in the interview as they talk excitedly about their futures, and the mother-type – or grandmother-type, as Makar describes herself after all these years – who has helped them along the way.
And like a proud grandmother, Makar recounts exactly how she met each one, how her sixth sense alerted her to their merit.
There’s Paola Severino – the school’s co-valedictorian this year – who Makar has known the longest, since Severino was a freshman.
“She’s, of course – all of them are – a very bright student. I knew she wanted to build her resume,” Makar said. “One day I’ll write a book on her.”
When Severino begins her studies in chemical engineering at Yale next year, she’ll already have two summer of chemical laboratory research experience at New York University and Princeton for reference.
Then there’s Kevin Erazo – the other co-valedictorian – whom Makar said she didn’t know at all when she met him as a junior.
“We talked for about five minutes,” she said, “and right away I knew this was a student who had a lot to offer.”
Erazo will begin studies in a special major that MIT offers – chemical biological engineering – which he chose through SEED research experience at Stevens Institute of Technology. He may even pursue a double major in polymathematics.
And then there’s Russo, who transferred from North Bergen as a sophomore and was taking regular chemistry, when her teacher referred her to Makar, who agreed to take her on as a student.
“She proved that she as very capable. She impressed me,” Makar said. “When she did research at NJIT, her mentor was very, very pleased with her.”
When Russo begins her chemistry studies at Brown next year, like Severino, she will have research and science fair experience at her disposal.
And just for the record, they’re well-rounded, too. They’re taking 12 AP exams between the three of them, they chair national honor societies and clubs, and Severino and Russo even pursue dance and theater on the side.
These students are not the exception; they’re part of a picture that involves approximately 10 other seniors and a number of younger students in the tight-knit SEED program.
“They’ve become part of my family,” Makar said. “I brag about them to everybody because I’m very, very proud of their accomplishments.”
According to Makar, Union City’s success is an indication of the support system within the district.
“We’re working together as a team [here in Union City], and that’s what makes a difference,” Makar said. “You have people willing to go the extra mile.”
Board of Education support comes in the form of free bussing to the summer research programs (most of the students, and even some families, don’t own cars) and payment of college courses and tests offered to the students.
In the face of state education cuts, Makar recounts, she was concerned about the future of Project SEED. But, according to business administrator Anthony Dragona, she shouldn’t have been.
“He said, ‘Nadia, before I cut your program, I’ll cut anything else before that,” Makar said.
The Union City School District has been spotlighted over the years for its excellence in education, especially when compared to other urban, low-income Abbott districts that have not performed as well despite similar aid.
Most recently, Union City was featured in “Kids First,” a new book by early childhood education and development expert David Kirp that showcases outstanding educational “game changing” programs in unlikely places.
In the book, Kirp uses Union City’s Hostos Center for Early Education as a preschool model that should be mirrored by facilities across the nation.
“Union City has kept its eye on the ball for years,” he said, explaining that the district’s overall success is what happens when “you put your mind to the job of improving the education of these kids…nudging them into thinking about college and beyond.”
For coverage of a recent book signing, see www.hudsonreporter.com.