The case against closing Kensington Urban Education Academy
By Ron Whitehorne on Apr 15, 2015 05:39 PM
Once again the School District is moving ahead with a school closure plan that excludes the community and fails to look at other options.
This time it’s Kensington Urban Education Academy, which the District wants to close and merge with Kensington International Business, citing low enrollment and poor academic performance. Both high schools are housed in the old Kensington High School building.
A vision never realized
First, here's some history. Youth United for Change and community allies waged a 10-year campaign to break up Kensington High School into smaller schools. At the time, Kensington's academic performance was among the worst of the city's high schools. Overcrowded, under-resourced, and plagued with chronic absenteeism, poor school climate, and a high dropout rate, Kensington was the poster child for the dysfunctional urban comprehensive high school.
Kensington students began researching education reform models around the country in 2000. They visited other cities where small, student-centered schools were emerging as promising alternatives to the traditional model. In 2003, along with many community allies, they submitted a proposal to the School District for small high schools in Kensington. In June 2005, the community won a public commitment from the District to create four small high schools. Three were created, and a fourth, Kensington Urban, was added years later, when Kensington CAPA moved to a new building.
The experiences of these four schools have been mixed. Some have done better than others, but none of them has realized the full small schools vision. Academic performance remains weak, but all the small schools experienced real gains in school climate and more positive relationships between school staff and students.
As envisioned by YUC, the small schools were to be organized around thematic, project-based learning. But due to lack of commitment by the District, this vision was never seriously implemented. Instead, instability and budget austerity have been the rule.
That the District shortchanged the Kensington schools is evident when we contrast their experience with that of other new schools. Science Leadership Academy and High School of the Future opened at the same time as the Kensington schools, but each had much more planning time -- a year -- before they opened. The District's newer innovative high schools (Building 21, the U School and the LINC) have also received more planning time and resources.
Piloting community schools
Rather than writing off the small schools, YUC is pressing for a community-based process to renew them as sustainable community schools, beginning with Kensington Urban.
This vision shares considerable common ground with the original small schools concept. Creating an engaging curriculum, employing restorative justice practices, fostering close relationships, and giving students, parents, and community members a real voice are common elements. Additionally, community schools include robust “wraparound” services and typically have a full-time coordinator to develop the relationship between school and community.
Community schools are gaining support both nationally and locally. The District could commit to developing Kensington Urban as a pilot school that could then become a model for creating community schools on a broader scale.
A flawed process
Only after the District developed its closure plan were community partners brought to the table. A process for selecting a principal has already begun, but there has not yet been a single community meeting.
Once again, the District is using its powers under Act 46, the state's school takeover law, to short-circuit due process and deny the community a voice. Pennsylvania state law requires three months between a community hearing announcing the school closings proposal and the vote. But the District intends to ignore this, according to a list of proposed resolutions for Thursday's SRC meeting. YUC is contemplating filing a federal civil rights complaint.
YUC leaders point out that it is far too late in the year to perform an effective principal search and school plan. Experience shows that a principal needs sufficient time with staff to put together a successful plan.
Once again, we have to ask, why, if the District’s plan has merit, does it have to be rushed through without any opportunity for discussion and authentic community engagement?
Youth United for Change, supported by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools and other community allies, will be speaking at Thursday’s SRC meeting. Our demands are for an open, democratic process and for making Kensington Urban Education High a community school.
Ron Whitehorne is board president of Youth United for Change as well as a coordinator for PCAPS.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.