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."