Devastated by job loss, Kensington now hammered by cutbacks

Most big private employers pulled out many years ago. Schools, a potential base for neighborhood recovery, are seeing their budgets sliced dramatically.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

From her fifth-floor office window at the headquarters of Congreso, Cynthia Figueroa can look down at Kensington’s past and see what she hopes is its future.

A block to the east, at American and Cambria Streets, an abandoned textile factory has been razed, and her Kensington-based human service organization is building an education center and charter school campus in its place.

The center will also house a branch of Harcum College, where local residents will study leadership and management, juvenile justice, human resources, and child care. It’s a far cry from the factory jobs once available to anyone with a high school diploma – or perhaps with just a strong back.

Figueroa, president and CEO of Congreso, is confident that with adequate resources, Kensington’s youth can be trained for the 21st century job market.

But she worries about whether those resources, including dollars for the public school system, will be there, particularly for students who have dropped out. She’s alarmed about the effect of continuing budget cuts and how they might make it difficult to maintain both regular programs and the alternative education programs dealing with students at risk of dropping out or seeking a way back to finish school.

"What’s going to be left after [they teach] the kids already in the schools?" she asked. "I’m afraid it’s going to get worse before it gets better."

While schools have faced reductions across the board, the Philadelphia School District’s budget for alternative education programs has been cut by more than half this school year.

And many of those students affected live in the Kensington area, already hard hit by the shortage of entry-level jobs that pay a living wage.

Memories of industry

Times were not always quite so hard in this neighborhood.

"When I was younger," says lifelong Kensington resident Ken Milano, 52, "you could quit a job in the morning and have another in the afternoon." Milano, a genealogist and author of the book Hidden History of Kensington and Fishtown, says that of 15 close friends, perhaps four went to college.

"The shipbuilding industry went, and then the textile industry followed it," Milano said. In the mid-1920s, he said, Philadelphia had some 70,000 jobs in textiles, and about half were in Kensington.

The grave markers are well known. Stetson Hats and Bromley carpet mills closed their local operations in the 1970s. The Cramp shipyard, which straddled the waterfront of Kensington and Port Richmond, employed some 15,000 people during World War II, enjoyed a brief resurgence in the Korean War, and then was gone permanently. Frankford Arsenal, another major employer of Kensington residents, shut down in 1987.

"We were the nexus of labor, transportation, and raw materials," says Henry Pyatt, commercial corridor manager at the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC).

No more. Manufacturing employment in Philadelphia plummeted from more than 250,000 jobs to 52,500 between 1969 and 2001 alone, according to an analysis of federal labor statistics by Michelle Schmitt of the Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators project at Temple University. By 2010, that number had shrunk below 25,000, according to a Pew Foundation report. In all, over a period of four decades, nine out of ten manufacturing jobs went away.

And Kensington and the surrounding neighborhoods were the most devastated by this decline, with retail replacing only a fraction of the old manufacturing jobs.

"When I got here [in 1986], the businesses were gone, the banks were gone," says Patricia DeCarlo, executive director of the Norris Square Civic Association. "But the people were still here."

The departure of industry "has really whacked those communities," says Bob Collazo, senior manager of business services for the city Department of Commerce. "The $40-$50 an hour [manufacturing] job has been supplanted by the service industry wage scale. There’s been the predictable economic and social dislocation, crime, drug use, and broken families. It’s a long, hard slog back."

Pyatt and NKCDC’s executive director, Sandy Saltzman, see signs that the "slog" may be underway: an old industrial building housing a mental health clinic; an abandoned textile mill carved into artisans’ suites; a working farm on the cleaned-up site of a galvanizing plant.

But "many of them haven’t got to the point of hiring people," Pyatt says. "Eventually they may, but not yet."

Downsizing hits education

In a neighborhood like this, public institutions like schools can serve as anchors of the community. Both traditional schools and alternative programs that rescue dropouts give students skills and prepare them in other ways for the more demanding economic reality.

But the erosion of the neighborhood’s base of private sector businesses is now being compounded by a massive public disinvestment in education. Largely due to huge state budget cuts that have hammered the District, alternative programs serving greater Kensington like One Bright Ray Community High School and El Centro de Estudiantes are being forced to downsize just as they are starting to show some success.

The budget for the District’s Academic Division 4, which houses these programs, went from $45 million in fiscal 2010-2011 to $22 million for this school year.

Benjamin J. Wright, the division’s assistant superintendent says that no programs were eliminated, although some were reduced and others reconfigured.

"It was a matter of doing what we had to do with what we have," says Wright.

Among other steps, the District has:

• Closed the four-person Re-engagement Center at 4224 N. Front St., set up just last year to provide added support to the area’s Latino community, which suffers from high dropout rates. The center, for students and their families looking for re-enrollment and GED resources, now operates solely at District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St.

• Centralized at 440 all operations of RETI-WRAP, which helps students returning from court-ordered placement to school, closing a branch at the North Front Street address that was more accessible to Kensington-area residents.

• Consolidated its Education Options Programs from nine sites to four and from 2,800 students to 2,400. These programs, sometimes referred to as "Twilight Programs," allow students and adults over the age of 17 to continue earning credits towards a high school diploma through afternoon classes.

"It was an opportunity to look at the whole operation," Wright said.

But the biggest cuts have come in contracted services, where District officials saved some $10 million by reducing programs and absorbing over 660 students in the regular system, in some cases retraining District personnel to deal with more difficult students. The District had originally proposed closing all 13 "accelerated" high school programs, which allow students to return to school and graduate in less than three years, but community pressure caused the plan to be dropped.

Nonetheless, the cuts took a toll, and some providers fear for the future.

Marcus Delgado, CEO of One Bright Ray, was forced to combine two schools, Fairhill Community High and North Philadelphia Community High, into one. He has frozen teacher pay and laid off nine non-teaching personnel out of 70. The combined school, which just had a midyear graduation ceremony for 62 reconnected dropouts, enrolls 327 students this year – down from 390 last year.

And David Bromley, executive director of Big Picture Philadelphia, which operates El Centro des Estudiantes, an alternative school in Norris Square, says he is concerned that the District’s new request for proposals (RFP) for alternative providers does not commit to a per-student funding level.

Bromley (who is from the family that ran Bromley carpet mills) says his school receives $10,000 per student now. "The better programs can’t do it for less money," he says. He’s concerned that new providers will seek to win contracts by proposing sharp increases in online teaching rather than one-to-one attention.

"They’re asking us to take a group of kids they’ve never been able to reach and deliver services for a lot less," Bromley says. "Are they going to gut something that’s been getting better and better?" District officials declined to comment.

But regardless of who does the teaching and how, educators and community leaders agree that the goal posts have been pushed back. Unlike the years when Ken Milano was growing up, it is no longer enough to just think about a high school diploma or GED.

Figueroa says this presents special problems in a community "where there’s no one at home talking about college." Hence Congreso’s move to bring college to the community.

"There are no living wage jobs they can just walk out into," says Helen Rowe, a teacher at El Centro. Some of the better jobs opening up, she adds, require technical skills and "a lot of our students struggle with math and science." And she says the tough job market makes it harder for students who need part-time work while they try to finish high school.

Eileen Weissman, principal of Kensington Business/Finance High School in the middle of the old factory district, speaks of "trying to build a college-going culture – or at least a trade school."

And she sees signs the lessons are starting to sink in.

"In a neighborhood of extreme poverty," says Weissman, who has been a principal at the school since 2003, "we try to show what opportunities are out there."