Kimberly Pham was a seventh grader at Stetson Middle School in Kensington when she dropped out of school.
She then got in trouble for truancy, which led to her spending a few years in the juvenile justice system.
Pham said her Kensington neighborhood didn’t emphasize the importance of education in the mid-2000s. After going to a Philadelphia magnet middle school, she transferred to Stetson, where she said the environment wasn’t conducive to learning, causing her to drop out.
“[Stetson] was a total different environment from the middle magnet school, which is only about five blocks [away],” said Pham, a senior social work major. “So I started to become less interested in school when I got to the neighborhood middle school.”
Now 25 years old, Pham was nominated earlier this month by Mayor Jim Kenney to submit 27 nominees for nine seats on the city’s upcoming school board. She joins 12 other city parents, educators and activists on the board.
The School Reform Commission formed in 2001 as the governing body of the School District of Philadelphia. In November 2017, the SRC voted to dissolve itself. With the creation of a new school board, this will be the first time in 16 years that the school district is under local control.
After reviewing applications and holding interviews, the panel will give its recommendations by Feb. 28 to Kenney, who will continue the process from there.
Pham hopes her work on the panel will ensure other students don’t have to go through an experience similar to hers.
“[We are looking for] candidates who are really passionate about the community, about the young people who go through our system of public education,” Pham said.
Philadelphia’s graduation rate lags behind other big cities like New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. But for the last three years, the school district’s graduation rate has risen. In the Class of 2017, 67 percent of all students earned diplomas in four years, according to the Inquirer.
“I didn’t have the smoothest route, and often a lot of young people encounter those same type of roads,” Pham said. “[I] wanted to ensure other people don’t come across hurdles that we can get rid of in the system.”
When Pham left the juvenile justice system, she returned to the school district and enrolled at Thomas A. Edison High School on Luzerne Street near 2nd in North Philadelphia, which she said had a similar atmosphere to Stetson.
From there, Pham went through a series of “alternative education programs” and earned her GED in 2010.
Through her personal experience in the education system, Pham developed a passion for educational fairness that inspired her to work on educational policy. Pham mentors “opportunity youth,” people ages 16-24 who are not in school or working, to help provide support and opportunities in Philadelphia.
She also works with education organizations like Project U-Turn, Opportunity Youth United and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions.
For her work with opportunity youth, Pham hopes that by understanding students and talking to them individually, she can give them more chances than she had growing up.
“I do a lot of one-to-one talking to the young people face-to-face,” Pham said. “I think the big thing that I do is really listen to them. In my position and with the privilege that I have and the opportunities that I have been awarded, how is it that I can pay it forward for this young person?”
Pham has used her work in education activism at both a local and national level, as well as her overall “love of the people” to earn a spot on the nominating panel.
Pham, who received the position through recommendations by staff in the Office of the Mayor and other city leaders, is the only student on the panel.
“[It’s] a fortunate opportunity to be able to represent Temple and also other young people who aren’t often engaged in social civics and step up for service positions, especially on a voluntary level,” Pham said. “And it requires a lot of work, but it’s a great representation.”
Emeka Nwadiora, a public health professor, has taught Pham in three different courses. Nwadiora describes Pham as “bright,” “articulate” and “hard-working.”
“I think that she’s very qualified,” Nwadiora said. “I call her a politician in the classroom. I think she’s moving in the direction of being a very powerful political figure.”
Not only does Pham hope to appoint passionate leaders to the school board, but she also wants to see more Philadelphia students help make decisions for the city’s public education system.
“More youth leadership and youth voice is something I would like to see,” Pham said. “It’s important that young people are helping leaders, as well as gaining an experience. Policies that support the creation of better learning and high-quality learning environments is really important.”