How Kensington Learns

Students walking home from school
Students walking home from school
Students walking home from school

The Philadelphia school system has a laundry list of problems. Overcrowding, attendance, dropouts, literacy, lack of extracurriculars and cutbacks that lead to music and arts programs being dropped are just some of the complaints against inner-city schools. Effects last after public education. Twenty-two percent of Philadelphians are functionally illiterate.

There are optimists.

“We just had a kid taken away in handcuffs today,” says James Williams, principal of the  Culinary Arts High School in Kensington. “So many kids are returning from some kind of incarceration and we bring them into our school, get them readjusted to society.

“It doesn’t work unless you put your arms around them and just hope.”

Williams’ school is one of several schools broken off from Kensington High School just a few years ago. The other schools include Capa, a creative and performing arts-based high school;  the School for International Business and Kensington High School. Students apply to these high schools at the end of eighth grade  and by a lottery system, may get chosen into these specialty schools. So far, according to Williams, due to space and availability, all of the students have been accepted.

The schools broke off from Kensington High School because the large class sizes became unmanageable. Students who would all be attending the original high school are now spread between five campuses. The class sizes are nearly comparable to suburban schools.

“Smaller is better,” Williams says. “You see it in our test scores, in our attendance rate.”

Thinking smaller is something that sees to be implemented in Philadelphia schools through Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s recently finalized “Imagine 2014.” The five-year plan hopes to decrease class size and add more counselors to the school system—the average counselor to student ratio is now 500 to 1. The plan hopes to drop that to 250 to 1.

The plan also seeks to provide more help and services to students, build smaller learning communities, break grades down into smaller and more manageable groups and focus more on ninth-graders, who are making the transition to high school.

Williams seems positive about Imagine 2014 but is also cautious.

“I hope it works,” he says. “We’ll see what happens.”

On a wall just north of Lehigh and Kensington Avenues
On a wall just north of Lehigh and Kensington avenues

A painted message on a wall on Kensington Avenue, just north of Lehigh Avenue, reads: “Changing Lives Through Literacy.” The message also provides a telephone number for the Community Learning Center (CLC).

Since 1987, the CLC has provided adult education classes to help adults improve their reading, writing and math skills to achieve their goals.

“Somebody may come in and their goal is to get a sustainable wage job, and that’s their goal,” says Rebecca Wagner, the executive director of CLC. “We help them improve their skills to get that goal.”

There are several sites: one in Kensington on the corner of Frankford Avenue and Somerset Street, two in Center City and two near Fifth Street and Allegheny.

The average age of a student at CLC is 40 years old; the center takes students from ages 18 and up. The center offers English as a Second Language classes, general education degree (GED) classes and beginning literacy classes.

The center sees 300 students a year. About 80 percent of these students do not have a high school diploma.

Wagner understands the many reasons people might leave school systems such as lack of support at home, bullying, not learning in school, moving around, a parent dying and taking care of siblings or children.

“It’s a very high number,” Wagner says about illiteracy rates. “Take the population of 1.5 million, 22 percent of that. You do the math. When you have a 50 to 60 percent dropout rate, where do you think these people end up in 10 years, five years? They come back to an adult learning program.

“Somebody drops out of school in fifth or sixth grade, it might take them seven years to get to the goal of GED,” she says. “But we break that way way way down because it’s going to take them so long.”

Wagner is hopeful that students who have taken the beginning literacy class move on to pre-GED and GED classes. “That’s the goal,” she says.

John Paul Jones Middle School in Kensington
John Paul Jones Middle School in Kensington

Tina Lawson was surprised to find out that her child’s school did not provide extracurricular activities. She teamed up with Clarence Ray, founder of Blessings for Children, a non-profit that seeks to get inner-city students doing something.

“We want to put them in a safe environment, give them some activities to do,” Ray says. “There’s nothing to do this summer and everything’s just about closed up. We want to teach them something as well. Morals, raise their spirits, their morale, give them confidence and hope.”

Near her home, she spoke about meeting kids, 17 and 18 years old, who had never gone to the beach, been to a large park or even been to a Phillies game.

“If the school’s don’t offer anything, there’s nothing there to give [students] the incentive to want to go other than learning,” Lawson says. “There’s no sports activities. There’s no music activities. There’s no science fairs. They don’t have it unless it’s a private school.”

However, James Williams disagrees, saying that his students are very active in after-school activities.

“I have a hard time closing this place up,” he says. “I can’t get kids out of here.”


  1. i am a student in kensington culinary and i agree completely with our beloved principle mr.williams they r literaly shuving us out the door we cant get enof of our school although some of us wont edmit it we have plenty of after school clubs and r making more i give mr.willams ideas about clubs at least once a week and make his brain into smoosh ur students can make there own clubs as well just hear them out add an idea box tht should get the ideas flowing

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