Art gives voice to students' anxiety over schools

Photos by students at Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School go up on North Front Street.
Photos by students at Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School go up on North Front Street. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 19, 2013

A is for abandoned - a student sitting against a stark black background, head down, arms around her knees.

B is for budget - a thin wallet opened to reveal no cash inside.

C is for crowded - too many students packed into a tight space.

This is the "Alphabet of Hope and Struggle," 26 photographs printed on vinyl that tell the story of the Philadelphia School District's brutal budget cuts through the eyes of Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School students.

On Monday, 30 teens will install the oversize images on a fence along North Front Street just past the Berks station of the Market Frankford El.

What do they hope to show the world?

"They're trying to make us statistics," said sophomore Alexis Rodriguez. "They're trying to take education away from us."

Teacher Joshua Kleiman came up with the initial idea for the project, but his students - ninth through 11th graders - ran with it. They brainstormed and refined their word selections, planned and shot their photos, then digitized their own handwriting to lay over the images.

To the students, the subject is something they live with every day. They say they love KCAPA, a diverse, neighborhood school of about 500 students, but it keeps losing things - counselors, programs, services. Virtually all the school's students are economically disadvantaged.

Schools around the city are feeling the effects of millions of dollars in cuts. Many lack such basics as supplies, full-time nurses, and counselors.

"It's hard to focus," said Javier Rivera, a junior. "The classes are a lot bigger."

"We've got old books, and we can't even take them home," Rodriguez said. "They're broken and graffitied."

"We lost our counselor, and we had all these fights," said Dianna Galligar. "We just got one back."

KCAPA is housed in a sleek new building opened in 2010. But the holes are glaring.

There is a dance studio, but no dance teacher. There is a library, but no one to check out books. There are 30 students in Kleiman's photography class, but only eight cameras. The theater program, a staple at other performing-arts high schools, was cut because of funds.

Students perform jobs usually handled by staff - collecting and handing out cellphones at the beginning and end of the day, running fund-raisers, operating the school store. Teachers are running out of basic supplies.

The photography project cost about $500 to produce, but Kleiman knew better than to expect school funds to pay for it. He won a microgrant from PhilaSoup, a teacher-run organization, and Philadelphia-based printer Berry & Homer printed the images at a vastly reduced rate.

On Friday, Kleiman and a handful of students readied for the installation, discussing supplies, and spacing, and imagining what might happen to their work when it is on display.

"Somebody needs to research removing permanent markers from vinyl," Kleiman said.

Benny Ramos piped up. "Ammonia. Leave it on for a little while," said Ramos, a sophomore new to KCAPA this year. His old school, Carroll High, closed in June. The group walked outside to Front Street for a dry run, threading zip ties through metal grommets to fasten the four foot-by-five foot panels to the fence that separates athletic fields from the cracked sidewalk.

El patrons paused for a moment, looking at the striking images, which range from hopeful (F is for future, a student in cap and gown) to austere (Z is for zipped, a student with tape over his mouth, symbolizing voicelessness.)

Kleiman, a six-year veteran who also teaches special education and serves as the school's technology coordinator, said the location was perfect.

"Everyone can see this," he said. "This is the intersection of a lot of changing neighborhoods."

The exhibit will run for several months. Then, the students plan to remove the vinyl panels and reuse them, for displays or marches in the spring, when next year's budget is detailed.

"The problems," Kleiman said, "keep rolling over. Every year, it gets worse."

Principal Debora Carrera is proud of her students' work. The budget cuts "are very real for them," Carrera said, "and this gives them another opportunity to express their concerns."

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To see all 26 photographs included in the "Alphabet of Hope and Struggle" public art exhibit, go to