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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.

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Comments (11)

Submitted by Annony (not verified) on April 15, 2015 7:24 pm

Why can't Kensington Urban and Business combine to be a community school? The reality is neighborhood schools are not attracting as many students - except for schools in the northeast.  The School District will save money on an administrator by combinging the schools.


That said, you criticism of the approach toward "new" schools is head on.  The new schools under Vallas (SLA, Academy at Palumbo, etc.) were given a year to plan and able to open one grade at a time.  The "new" new schools also have been given a lot more money, a year planning time and opening one grade at a time.  Obviously, the conditions under which the Kensington's (and Caroll, Douglas - two schools that were shut) and Penn Treaty (basically took students from Carroll and Douglas) were very different.  The Workshop is another example where they have excess funding and staff (they have 59 sophomores - lost 40 from their first 9th grade class) and 75 freshman with 13 teachers.)  Meanwhile, Kensington Urban is closed for "low performance" (no lower than Workshop) and "low enrollment" (see Workshop enrollment / retention.) 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 17, 2015 6:56 am

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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 17, 2015 8:00 am

The school district is full of s*** when they say "all current teachers will be retained".  All current teachers retained my a**!!!!  At least HALF of the teachers at one of the two Kensington high schools at that building have received forced transfer notices and now must squeeze site selection interviews (and in some cases, miss work in order to present lesson demonstrations during the school day at the site selected schools in order to merely keep their employment going!!!) amongst an already jam-packed schedule.  This is nuts.  Also, apparently anytime people are forced transferred to another school, they run the risk of getting their teaching status demoted from "permanent teacher" to "special assignment" -- aka temp -- which means they have little to no chance of being detained at that same location the following year, which means they have to go through the aggravation of time-consuming, nerve-wracking site selection interviews YET AGAIN.  I am sick and tired of all the crap and the lies.  Rumor around Kensington has it that the district is secretly planning to shutter the entire building -- closing not one high school but TWO -- but doesn't want to tell us that until the very last minute.  (Hey, that's what the Taco Bell did in my town when it closed, it didn't tell employees until 5 days prior, right around Christmastime too.  But I'd like to hope a career job like teaching would treat their employees better than some min wage fast food joint, but I guess I was wrong?)

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