Kensington mural spells out students’ concerns over Philly school cuts

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A new photo mural uses the alphabet to spell out the hardships of the Philadelphia School District’s budget crisis.

The 26-panel project hangs along a gate below the Berks Street stop on the Market-Frankford subway line. Not far away sits Kensington CAPA High School where the students behind and part of the outdoor installation go to school.

Sophomore Alexis Rodriguez’s face appears on the “Q” panel of the mural. Her eyes peer up at the word “Questions” scribbled above her head.

“[The community] can see how we feel about [the budget cuts],” she said of the project. “Most of the words explain our feelings.”

“Abandoned” and “Worry” appear on the mural’s “A” and “W” panels.

CAPA teacher Joshua Kleiman dreamed up the public-facing project after attending a photography conference at Duke University. It was there that he was introduced to the work of Wendy Ewald, a New York-based artist who has produced a series of alphabet-inspired images to ignite dialogue about subjects such as race and class.

Kleiman thought photography could similarly help his students consider the state of public education in the city — and keep the conversation about it going.

“The spring was the student walkout and all of the hearings and the SRC meetings, but then it kind of fades out of the public eye when the school year starts,” said Kleiman. “I think people kind of say, ‘All right, well, they’re doing fine again. They do it every school year.'”

“I want to give [my students] the opportunity to show the public that these decisions impact us and we’re going to force you to look at it and think about it as you walk by each day,” he said.

Nearby resident Matthew Nocho stopped by the mural as he headed to a meeting. He said the project may help turn on a light bulb for some passers-by.

“We live in a fast-paced city, so we sometimes have the tendency to ignore these things that we shouldn’t ignore,” said Nocho. “Now, by it being there, it catches your eye and you say, ‘Hey, they do live in this hard thing. Maybe we should pay attention.'”

Fellow resident Stephanie Koenig had mixed feelings about the project. On the one hand, she said, it could help spur dialogue, but she’s also concerned that it also could damage perceptions about the up-and-coming neighborhood.

“If you look up and down the street, there’s a lot of empty buildings, things that are sort of falling apart, but there’s a lot of really great stuff going on in this neighborhood and there’s a lot of new energy,” she said. “So I think it’s easy for some people who aren’t familiar with the neighborhood to drive by and just think, ‘Oh, more bad things about the neighborhood.'”

The mural will stay up through early spring.

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