Northeast Times

‘New Kensington Parents’ group fights for schools in 19125

An at­tendee of a 2012 com­munity in­put meet­ing looks over lit­er­at­ure that ex­plains the school dis­trict’s plan to tran­form the edu­ca­tion sys­tem. The New Kens­ing­ton Par­ents group works to im­prove schools in the 19125 ZIP code. BILL ACHUFF / STAR PHOTO

The School Re­form Com­mis­sion will vote March 7 on the po­ten­tial clos­ure of 29 city schools, in­clud­ing some in the River Wards. It’s just one of the edu­ca­tion is­sues on which the new ad­vocacy group, New Kens­ing­ton Par­ents, has set its sights.

When Jorge Santana moved to Fishtown two years ago, he said he was struck by what he per­ceived as the lack of many qual­ity schools in the neigh­bor­hood. 

“When I moved here with my wife, we star­ted ask­ing around about schools … and [thought], ‘Why don’t we have a Meredith, or a Penn Al­ex­an­der’?” Santana asked, in ref­er­ence to suc­cess­ful pub­lic ele­ment­ary schools in South and West Phil­adelphia, re­spect­fully.

Santana said that the lack of strong schools in the area de­tracts from the neigh­bor­hood in the short-term and the long-run, since he said he be­lieves young par­ents leave neigh­bor­hoods like Fishtown to raise their kids else­where, rather than con­tinu­ing to in­vest in the neigh­bor­hood.

In Decem­ber, mem­bers of a non­profit par­ents’ ad­vocacy group — which Santana co-foun­ded — began hold­ing meet­ings about these edu­ca­tion is­sues. The group, New Kens­ing­ton Par­ents Co­ali­tion for Bet­ter Schools and Play (known as New Kens­ing­ton Par­ents, or NKP) fo­cuses on schools and neigh­bor­hoods in ZIP code 19125 – which com­prises East Kens­ing­ton, Fishtown and Olde Rich­mond.

“If you have great schools and safe streets, everything else kind of just takes cares of it­self,” Santana said of the driv­ing idea be­hind NKP.

New Kens­ing­ton Par­ents fo­cuses on or­gan­iz­ing and mo­tiv­at­ing par­ents to im­prove the schools and learn­ing re­sources in their re­spect­ive neigh­bor­hoods, Santana said.

“We’re build­ing a cul­ture of edu­ca­tion and lifelong learn­ing in and out of school walls,” Santana said.

Mem­bers vo­lun­teer their skills and time to as­sist the group with re­search and pro­pos­als for the edu­ca­tion­al eco­sys­tem of the neigh­bor­hood.

Forty people at­ten­ded NKP’s first meet­ing, in Decem­ber. Now there are 110 mem­bers of the group who at­tend the monthly meet­ings, each of which is held at a dif­fer­ent pub­lic school in NKP’s area.

Most of the mem­bers are new or ex­pect­ing par­ents, Santana said, as par­ents of older kids have typ­ic­ally already com­mit­ted to their schools. NKP mem­bers, he said, are not 100 per­cent cer­tain where their kids will go to school.

“The Phil­adelphia Schools Dis­trict is ba­sic­ally col­lapsing,” he said, point­ing to the po­ten­tial clos­ure of 29 schools and re­lo­ca­tions and oth­er changes at many more—about 14,000 stu­dents would be af­fected. The School Re­form Com­mis­sion is sched­uled to vote March 7 on the clos­ures and changes.

This “tox­ic” edu­ca­tion at­mo­sphere, he said, was an­oth­er factor that led to the cre­ation of the group.

The is­sue of edu­ca­tion needs more in­volve­ment than ever, said New Kens­ing­ton Com­munity De­vel­op­ment Cor­por­a­tion (NK­CDC) ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or Sandy Salzman.

“Pub­lic edu­ca­tion in the city of Phil­adelphia has had a lot of tur­moil re­cently,” Salzman said. “In our neigh­bor­hood, [Charles] Car­oll and [Steph­en A.] Douglas [high schools] will be clos­ing, and we’re very con­cerned about that. Where are all those kids go­ing to go school?”

Sherid­an West Academy, 3701 Frank­ford Ave., is an­oth­er River Wards school slated to close, and its stu­dents in grades 7 and 8 will be re­as­signed to Penn Treaty Middle School, 600 E. Thompson St. Hack­ett Ele­ment­ary School, 2161 E. York St., a K-6 school, will see stu­dents in grades 5 and 6 also trans­ition to Penn Treaty Middle School.

Salzman said that the NK­CDC does not have the re­sources to ded­ic­ate any staff to edu­ca­tion­al is­sues right now, but re­cog­nizes that the area need more at­ten­tion.

“We re­cog­nize that the schools in this neigh­bor­hood need more in­volve­ment,” she said. “It’s a very im­port­ant is­sue for our neigh­bor­hood.”

The NKP’s mis­sion, Santana said, has ex­pan­ded to gen­er­ally in­stilling a cul­ture of learn­ing in its neigh­bor­hoods, wheth­er that means at­tract­ing new schools to open or cap­it­al­iz­ing on the large loc­al pop­u­la­tion of edu­cat­ors to cre­ate new types of learn­ing in­sti­tu­tions in the neigh­bor­hood.

“Our gen­er­a­tion is very in­ter­ested in re­build­ing cit­ies,” Santana said, and said that mak­ing a place like Fishtown eco­nom­ic­ally healthy also re­quires a strong edu­ca­tion­al en­vir­on­ment for par­ents.

NKP’s early activ­it­ies have in­cluded gath­er­ing in­form­a­tion about schools in 19125, and learn­ing about the in­fra­struc­ture of how school struc­tures are be­ing used.

Santana has pre­vi­ously worked as chief of staff to former State Rep. Tony Payton, Jr. (D-179th dist.) and as a deputy city com­mis­sion­er. He cur­rently runs a con­sultancy for civically en­gaged non­profits.

He was char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally frank about his ur­gency in the quest for bet­ter schools.

“My wife’s ex­pect­ing in May. I figured I got four years for this pro­ject,” he said.

To learn more, vis­it newkens­ing­ton­par­ents.org or face­book.com/groups/newkens­ing­ton­par­ents.

Re­port­er Sam Ne­w­house can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at sne­w­house@bsmphilly.com.

You can reach at snewhouse@bsmphilly.com.

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