The students in Victor Colon's dance class at Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts suddenly came to life. Arranged in facing pairs, they started swiveling their hips and sashaying in unison – one-two-three-tap, one-two-three-tap.
It was bachata, a Cuban-inflected dance that originated in the Dominican Republic.
Students – some gliding like pros, others stiffly stuttering a half-step behind – stole looks at themselves in the mirrored wall of the top-of-the-line dance studio. Then they stopped.
"OK," said Colon, a burly professional dancer with a shaved head. "Again."
Along with the others, Malik Mitchum lined up for another go.
Mitchum likes dancing, and he's pretty good at it. But that's not why he came to KCAPA. In fact, he didn't want to go there at all, aspiring instead to attend one of the city's top magnets.
Now, however, the 16-year-old junior is glad that fate and circumstance landed him there, even though it is a non-selective neighborhood school in one of the city's most depressed areas.
"This school is excellent," Mitchum said. "A lot of the teachers, they've had my back. And kids here have goals. I want to do pre-med and become a pediatrician."
In the past, getting to medical school from Kensington High was highly improbable. It's a tad less improbable now, largely the result of a prolonged community campaign to break up the old Kensington High into four smaller, themed schools.
"We're invested in the kids," said Kensington native Debora Carrera, KCAPA's 39-year-old principal. "We have relationships with the families. I see fewer kids dropping out."
The actual statistics show some hard-won progress. And KCAPA has the vibe of a school where good things are happening.
On recent visits, the school was calm and hallways seemed trouble-free.
Besides dance, students do art, theater, music, and cinematography. There is a professional-quality broadcast studio. Students make films.
Carrera bragged that one student made an impressive documentary about his mother; two others made an "awesome, hysterical" short feature about a little sister's love affair with her teddy bear.
"Themed schools have ways of engaging young people in education and making schools places where they want to be," said Andi Perez, executive director of Youth United for Change, the group that spearheaded the small-schools campaign.
For decades, the old Kensington High has had one of the highest dropout rates in the city. This wasn't so destructive to students' futures when factory jobs were plentiful.
But the factories left, the drug trade flourished, and ethnic tensions escalated, leaving Kensington particularly impervious to efforts to ratchet up school effectiveness.
A decade ago students and community leaders took hold of the problem, deciding that small, themed high schools provided the most promising path to engage and graduate more students. Activists, including students, did research, visited model schools in other cities, and relentlessly lobbied school officials.
At a time when small schools were favored by then-CEO Paul Vallas, the campaign had an effect. The District started the process of breaking up Kensington High into four smaller schools in 2004, with themes largely chosen by students and the community: CAPA, Culinary, International Business and Finance, and Urban Education.
It wasn't ideal: Unlike some other new, small schools, these didn't get a year to plan. KCAPA spent its first three years sharing the old building with Finance. The breakup was rather crude, with a wall built down the middle of the school. Culinary is housed in what had been an annex.
Advocates fought hard for a new building for KCAPA. When it finally opened in 2010, it was a showplace.
With modern equipment, wide sunny hallways, second-floor windows looking out over a vegetation-covered roof, and other environmentally-friendly features, the KCAPA building has won the highest "sustainability" designation possible from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The people inside are also working on sustaining the educational careers of the students. And there are some early indications that the efforts may be paying off.
This year, KCAPA met federal learning goals, or adequate yearly progress. It was the only neighborhood high school in the city to do so. There were impressive jumps in the proportion of students who reached math and reading proficiency.
There are also signs of improvement in graduation rates. As calculated by the state, the rate jumped from 48 percent in 2010 to 67 percent in 2011.
However, the School District calculates graduation rates differently – counting students from the high school they started in rather than the one in which they finished. Its numbers show a rate of only 45 percent, more in line with those at the other Kensington schools.
As the new building was nearing its opening date, advocates had to mobilize again to fend off ideas of making it a magnet school rather than being strictly for the neighborhood.
"One thing I love, it's not CAPA on Broad Street," said Carrera, referring to the selective, audition-based school in South Philadelphia that enrolls students from all over the city. "We don't have kids who were dancing since they were three years old."
Instead, this school "draws out the interests and talents" of neighborhood kids who might never otherwise have had the chance.
"Does it happen for all kids? Absolutely no. Does it happen for some kids? Absolutely yes," Carrera said.
And the school is also keeping students from Kensington who might otherwise have opted to go to selective schools.
Mitchum explained that in seventh grade, his mother was very sick and, even though he had high test scores, "my attendance wasn't up to speed." He landed at KCAPA with the intention of transferring as soon as he could.
But he became involved in student government as a freshman. And then the school moved to the new building.
It wasn't long before he changed his mind. "Everyone said Kensington is a bad school, but Mrs. Carrera turned it around," he said.
One of his dance partners, Aysis Santana, said she could have gone to Girls High. "I like the arts, and all the teachers take time to help us," she said.
Hakim Kirkland found himself back in the old neighborhood when his grandmother got sick, uprooted from a well-off Delaware County school district.
He prefers KCAPA.
'They understand you'
"It's a totally different environment," said the 16-year-old junior, who has plans for the Air Force and a career in criminal justice. "Here you know everybody, you get to know the teachers and get to the point where they understand you."
He said, "Teachers didn't go to that level" in his suburban school, where he was among a small minority of African American students.
Carrera, the principal, knows how it is.
After attending Potter-Thomas Elementary and Conwell Middle Magnet, she took advantage of the desegregation program to leave the neighborhood for Northeast High.
"But if I were a teenager now," she said, "I'd come here."