Text and image by Ella Lathan.
Kristen Clark grew up in Germantown and watched her community struggle with different hardships over the years. She recognized early on that she was one of the more privileged kids in her neighborhood – she attended Central High School, one of the top public schools in the country.
Many of the other neighborhood kids attended Germantown High School, which did not have the best academic reputation.
When Clark graduated from Central High in 2012 there was an eerie feeling in the air regarding public schools. During her senior year, the School District of Philadelphia closed six public schools.
“And that six was a warning,” Clark said. “That six hurt.”
Germantown High School was shuttered by the School District after the 2012-2013 academic year, one of 24 schools that closed during the second wave of closures intended to save the District money.
Clark, now the co-owner of the Germantown-based Kinesics Dance Dynamics Theater and executive director of the Germantown Arts District, is very familiar with the school closures. Many of Clark’s friends attended Germantown High, and Clark was an active community member after the closures.
Clark went to college for a little while after graduating from high school but quickly decided to come back to work for a nonprofit organization teaching youths about dance and other creative measures.
For Clark, there were many things she was not expecting when entering this professional role.
“A triggering point for me was essentially the way the community interacts with the young people.” Clark explained. “They’re awful. It is very much given the presence of, “You don’t belong here.’”
She claimed that at Roxborough High School, for example, students were escorted from the building at dismissal and walked down the street to the bus stops as a way to minimize interaction with the locals.
“That journey from the school to the transportation hub is guarded,” she continued. “There is a crew of teachers who walk and escort the kids out of the neighborhood. People complain to the school about there being too many kids, about them coming into the stores in large groups, about them blasting music as they walked down, about them being too loud as they walked down the street. They’re teenagers.”
The public school closures of 2012 and 2013 sent a signal to young people, Clark continued.
‘We don’t want to see you,” she explained. “We don’t really want to know you exist. Just go to school. Go home. We give you enough. Leave people alone.”
For students and their families, the closings happened quickly, Clark said. They were expected to jump to a new school as though they did not have an existing learning community.
“That was traumatic,” said Clark. “That was an abrupt shift and change – displacement for a lot of families, a lot of kids. I don’t even think anybody was worried about the social and emotional implications of what that would do. It was just, ‘Do it. It will save money. It’ll be better this way.’
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