Photo: Nemesis Mora
Gloria Casarez Elementary School held its first mayoral forum. Video: Kianni Figuereo/AL DÍA News

Kensington elementary students lead forum with Philadelphia mayoral candidates

Gloria Casarez Elementary School students had the opportunity to ask the mayoral candidates about gun violence, open drug market, and infrastructure conditions.


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The crowded mayoral race in Philadelphia proceeds—constant discussions and forums almost every other day on how these candidates will address Philadelphians pressing concerns, with the latest happening in an underfunded and under-resourced elementary school in Kensington—prone to gun violence, open drug market, and hazardous infrastructure conditions. 

That school is Gloria Casarez, where parents, students and teachers gathered yesterday to participate in the Mayoral Foum Kensintong. The event was moderated by Alan Nuñez and Carlos Nogueras, Political Reporters with AL DÍA; Aubri Juhasz, WHYY Education Reporter; Awilda Balbuena, Gloria Casarez Elementary School Principal; and Julio Nuñez, Assistant Principal at the same school. 

Nine out of the eleven expectant candidates were in attendance: Rebecca Rhynhart, Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, Cherelle Parker, Helen Gym, Derek Green, David Oh, Allan Domb, Amen Brown, and Warren Bloom, where elementary students inquired and sourced questions for the mayoral candidates to share their plans for Kensington. 

Time for students to ask questions

Devyn Smith, an elementary student at Gloria Casarez, asked the candidates, “do you commit to helping us advocate for a new school building?” Explaining the infrastructural issues the school is experiencing—no air conditioning, no elevators, which makes it arduous to provide services for students with disabilities; no good bathrooms, and no parking for teachers; each candidate pledged to help improve the environmental issues of the schools. In fact, the school is nearly 124 years old and has no infrastructure improvements.

But Gloria Casarez’s students had more topics to explore. A ten-year-old student, Jhovanny Quiñones, asked candidates how they plan to clean up the streets in Kensington and stop drug usage and drug trafficking. He said he often sees people using and selling drugs on his way to school and finds trash and needles.  

“No child, no kid should have to walk to school and see what we all see when we walk here,” said former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart. “People with needles in their necks— people collapsed. We should not have this in our city.”

Former Councilmember Cherelle Parker added that “there will be zero tolerance for any misuse or abuse of authority by law enforcement,” while  former City Councilmember David Oh assured, “all of this is illegal. You should not have people doing injections right in the middle of the day. You should not have drug dealers openly selling drugs with police told not to arrest them or to intervene.” 

A sentiment shared by former City Councilmember Allan Domb, who said he would invest $5 or $7 million yearly to revitalize the neighborhood for five years. 

“I remember when Kensington was thriving,” he added. “I remember Cramer’s Kids on Kensington Avenue. I remember all those stores that were doing well. We have allowed this, and I blame the government. We have allowed this to occur. We need to fix it.” 

However, former City Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez asserted the issue with Kensington lies in its lack of leadership, and “no neighborhood should live like this.” 

“This is not an investment issue,” Sánchez emphasized. “This is not a leadership issue locally. It is a leadership issue from the city and all the elected officials here.”

As a gun violence survivor, West Philadelphia State Representative Amen Brown said, “I’m running to make sure that no more children or no more parents experience what my mother experienced when I was shot.” 

Echoing the current state of Kensington, former City Councilmember Derek Green found Kensington’s situation unacceptable and compared it to “an episode of The Wire.” 

“We are lying to the constituents of this community. We are not doing and being upfront and honest about what needs to be done.”

The last day to vote in the mayoral primary is May 1st, and Election Day is May 16th. 

Kensington Community’s Thoughts

Gloria Casarez Elementary students posed great questions for the mayoral candidates. Nevertheless, parents, students, and teachers in attendance echoed a similar concern. 

Al DÍA had the opportunity to speak with Kayla Móntenes, Devyn Smith’s mother, who shared what she wants from the new mayor. Her priority is air conditioning, citing that students are “out of school a lot because of the heatwave.” While another parent, Lilian Mercado, said the main changes she would like to see in the school are more security.  

Mercado explained two months ago, a homeless man in the playground called one of the students. Although the student did not engage, it heightened safety concerns from parents.  

Despite this, Charlotte Lane, a teacher at Gloria Casarez Elementary School and the educator of the students posing the questions, said, “I want the school building and the community to reflect the pride that children have because if your city isn’t taking care of your school building and it is not taking care of your community, yourself worth has to be affected.” 

She assures wanting students to know “the sky's the limit regardless of what’s going on in or outside the building. But it would be a big boost if they knew somebody else thought they were worth it.”  

Amazed by an elementary student’s eloquence, AL DÍA  asked young Devyn Smith his expectations for the mayoral candidates — either change the flooring or provide air conditioning, he said. Smith has been with the school for approximately six years and is concerned about asbestos exposure on the school’s floor.  

The community remains vigilant and hopeful that Philadelphia’s 100th mayor will bring real change.

Brief Closing Statements from Mayoral Candidates

After a two-hour forum, Rebecca Rhynhart concluded her participation highlighting that “Philadelphia deserves a city government that truly works."

Our city is an amazing city with neighborhoods and arts and culture and restaurants. We need to make it safe, clean, and fix the schools.

In Cherelle Parker’s turn, she made clear her commitment in “ensuring that we are the safest and the cleanest big city in the nation that can provide access to economic opportunity for all."

I propose to you that our schools will be open beginning at 7:30 every morning and closed no earlier than 6:00 pm. We will have year-round public educational opportunities for not just our students, but unemployed and underemployed adults.

In his final speech, David Oh emphasized on the disparities in Philadelphia neighborhoods.

I come from a poor neighborhood, Southwest Philadelphia. I’ve never been in a neighborhood this poor. The disparity in this city between rich and poor, the services, how people are treated, whether you are protected, your school, your recreation. This is unacceptable to have communities so very different……we need to even this out.

Helen Gym, former At-large Councilmember,  said she is running for mayor to "finish a job that I started more than three decades ago when I said that this city was never going to rise if it left its children and families behind."

I’m here to make sure that as mayor, Philadelphia is going to love you back and give you the services and the city that we deserve. 

Derek Green assured that in his public safety plan, “we will have that opportunity for young people and give them the ability to start a business like I did as well as get a job, a family-sustaining job." 

We are also investing in our city, especially invest in Kensington and use the things I’ve seen in other cities and use a bipartisan infrastructure plan as a real way to invest in our city and make our city safer because—we should expect more and deserve more.

For his part, Allan Domb shared that the top priority is to address violence in Philadelphia.  

...On day one on there, [I will issue] a public health crisis in Kensington.

Warren Brown, a licensed minister, used his closing statement to encourage students to pray. 

We have to do everything humanely possible to solve this problem. But unless God solves it, we are just laboring in vain. God wants to solve it. He wants people to pray.

Sánchez and Brown left the Mayoral forum early and did not provide closing statements.

Upon the Mayoral Forum culmination, the remaining candidates: Rebecca Rhynhart, Cherelle Parker, Helen Gym, Derek Green, David Oh, Allan Domb, and Warren Bloom, pledged that after becoming mayor, the person chosen will return to Gloria Casarez Elementary School and discuss all the issues deeper.


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