Angry over a plan to close a small city high school, several dozen students said Thursday that they would fight to keep Kensington Urban Education Academy open.
"As students, parents, and community members, we have been shut out of this process," Essence Whiting, a Kensington Urban student and member of the student organizing group Youth United for Change, told the School Reform Commission at a meeting.
The Philadelphia School District wants to merge Kensington Urban, one of four small high schools in the neighborhood, with Kensington Business, Finance, and Entrepreneurship High School. The schools share a building.
District officials say they have given the community adequate notice, and invited youth leaders to help shape the new school, which they said would offer more and better courses, and retain all current teachers from the two schools. The current schools are underutilized and underperforming, they said.
Emotions ran high at the meeting, and the student group was ultimately asked by school police to leave after an adult organizer and at least one teenager began cursing at the SRC.
The members of Youth United for Change in the audience complied with the police request.
After their departure, the SRC voted unanimously to suspend part of the state public school code, effectively shortening the timeline it must follow before closing the school.
Instead of holding a hearing three months before a closure vote, it will now need only 45 days.
"Why the bum's rush?" shouted an audience member.
Before the meeting, students led a rally outside district headquarters protesting the planned closure.
The students said they felt the SRC was breaking a promise it made a decade ago, when the district closed Kensington High, a large, dysfunctional school, and broke it into three small schools. A fourth, Kensington Urban, opened in 2009.
At the time, the district cited research saying small schools would benefit students.
Teacher Larry Arata wondered why the SRC was backing away from that research.
"No one can deny that the staff has made great strides during the last several years to improve the climate and academic levels" at Kensington Business, said Arata, who teaches there. "Why not keep the two schools as separate small schools and give the side that is underperforming what it needs to improve?"
Students and others, including Ronald Whitehorne, a retired district teacher and board president of Youth United for Change, proposed turning Kensington Urban into a "community school," with social service agencies embedded in the building.
Whitehorne told the SRC a community school would be a palatable alternative to the "punitive privatized turnarounds" now trending.
Helen Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education and an at-large candidate for City Council, stood with students and said she opposed the school's closure.
"I am sick and tired of hearing our schools being described as failing," Gym said. "They are being failed."
The commission is scheduled to vote on the closure in June. A hearing is set for April 28.
Some members of the SRC have met with Youth United for Change members, chairwoman Marge Neff said, and Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said he would also sit down with students.