‘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.