This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
As the “Kensington stories” fill Jim Hardy’s mind and memories, joy, sorrow, frustration, and satisfaction bump up against each other.
For example, he remembers the Arabic-speaking Moroccan high school student who broke down in tears when he couldn’t understand the English instructions to the required PSSA test.
And the shy kids, many from other countries, who opened up when Hardy’s soccer leagues offered them a chance to play the game that they knew well as a path into the country they didn’t.
And the spike of happiness when a former student, ecstatic at his summer school grades, saw Hardy three blocks away and sprinted toward him, screaming “Mr. Hardy! Mr. Hardy! I passed! I passed!”
And the recent sick feeling he got when he learned that one of his former students had been shot to death.
For Hardy, the boundaries have long disappeared between Kensington Health Sciences Academy, where he has taught for almost a decade, and the struggling neighborhood of Kensington where has chosen to live, work, and do what he can to make a difference.
“I always wanted to combine teaching and organizing,” said Hardy, as students filtered out of his last-period Spanish class.
“There’s something about the role of a teacher that has great potential to have an impact that goes far beyond the classroom.”
The school’s principal, James Williams, said Hardy has more than fulfilled that potential.
“He’s one of the most caring people I know,” he said. “He sets a high standard. He walks to work. He sees the kids in the grocery stores, he sees them at the local cleaner’s.
“You can see it on him. You can almost smell it on him. He just cares.”
Yorgis Lescalle. who came from Cuba in 2012, agreed.
“Studying with Mr. Hardy was, how do you say it? A gift,” said Lescalle through an interpreter
“I have learned a lot of goals, so, he says to me, ‘If you study, you will get to be all you can in life.’ So we have worked like that, worked since 9th to now 12th.”
A diverse student body
Most of the 442 students – about 82 percent of them – are economically disadvantaged, according to 2015-16 figures. Students of color make up about 90 percent of the student population, with nearly two-thirds of those Latino, many of them immigrants who speak little to no English.
About 18 percent of the students are classified as English learners, which in all but a few cases means they are immigrants. For these, said Williams, in his 10th year as principal, “poverty increases the challenge,” particularly in view of School District cutbacks in recent years.
For example, the school used to have two Spanish teachers and now has only Hardy.
Equally damaging to immigrant students, the principal said, are cutbacks in so-called “fringe” areas.
“When you start taking away the things the cuts call for,” he said, “the arts, sports, those things are the bonding elements, especially for kids where language is a barrier. … You’re going to take away the universal language.”
A life of service
Hardy is best known for sports, particularly soccer, but it’s only part of his narrative of service.
A Delaware County native, Hardy, 39, attended the College of Wooster in Ohio before returning to Philadelphia and Temple University.
In Ohio, he worked for the Student Environmental Action Coalition. Back on the East Coast, he moved to West Philadelphia and began looking for the best way to serve the community.
In 2004, he attended a National Coalition of Education Activists convention at the University of Pennsylvania, an event that convinced him that his future was in teaching.
He was already fluent in Spanish, after taking it in high school and later spending a year in Argentina, so Kensington was the perfect fit.
“I wanted to be a teacher and a community organizer in the same neighborhood,” he said, working with “the students that needed the most support and lacked the most opportunities.”
He moved there in 2006 when he was a Temple senior and became active in Kensington School and Community Coalition, a community group organized by Youth United for Change.
He was also a part-time tutor in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program at the old Kensington Culinary Arts High School, which later became Kensington Health Sciences. This was where he had the harrowing experience with the Moroccan student to whom he was reading the PSSA instructions in English, as required.
“He broke into tears and he couldn’t stop crying,” Hardy recalled. “I get emotional just thinking about it. The impersonality of it all. Putting him through a traumatic experience.” Hardy hesitated and added, wistfully, “I could have spent more time preparing him.”
At Kensington Health Sciences Academy, he taught ESOL for two years, providing supplemental services for many immigrant students before moving to teach Spanish.
“It’s an incredible challenge,” said Hardy, noting that there are a few students who know almost no Spanish and more whose English is limited.
“I find ways to teach every student at a different level. I try to do new things every year. Some of them work. Some of them don’t.”
His class is a balancing act. Hardy, a slender man with chiseled features, moves quickly from student to student as they navigate through assignments geared as much as possible to their language proficiency.
Outside class, he can sometimes be found acting as an interpreter for Latino parents at parent-teacher conferences or simply zeroing in on a student who needs help fitting in.
More recently, he has been working with Honduran students whose families are enmeshed in immigration court proceedings as they seek asylum from the violence in their home country.
“They’re facing economic pressure and despair,” he said.
Williams said, “He seeks kids out. He looks for the kid who will potentially isolate himself or herself,” inviting them to a school activity such as chess club or, more likely, to the soccer field.
A labor of love
On this late afternoon, Cione Field, a sun-baked, rutted plain at Lehigh and Aramingo Avenues, is a miniature United Nations.
Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, and Palestine are just some of the countries and territories represented as Hardy holds a practice of the Kensington Multiplex soccer team, which combines all Kensington high schools.
Despite the sweltering heat, he keeps his long-sleeved shirt on until long after the players have removed theirs.
He moves deliberately, but not smoothly, as he illustrates a passing maneuver.
“Get behind him if you can,” he said. “That’s good.”
Hardy has long enjoyed playing soccer, but realized his talent would take him only so far in the sport, and he turned to coaching. It’s not an unusual phenomenon – most Major League Baseball managers, for example, were mediocre players. But Hardy’s was no ordinary switch.
“I realized how much the kids wanted to do something outside of school, “ he said.
The Kensington Soccer Club that he founded in 2010 as little more than a pickup group has exploded into an organization including indoor soccer leagues, summer camps, afterschool programs, clinics, and highly competitive teams. It now serves more than 1,100 young people from age 3 to 19, with about 60 coaches, many of them volunteers who started as youngsters.
One of the volunteer coaches, Cristian Paredes, credits the club with helping him assimilate into the community.
Paredes, who now attends the Community College of Philadelphia, came to the United States from Colombia at 11 years old, speaking very little English. He said he rarely socialized outside his community.
But when he got involved in soccer, he said, “My English started to improve,” and he started to seek out friends who didn’t speak Spanish.
”Before I only talked to Spanish people.”
Hardy said, “We’re proud of bringing kids together from different countries.We have players from 20, 30 countries.”
Hardy has coached Josue Gonzalez-Sepulveda for more than six years.
“This place, this club is like my second family,” said Gonzalez-Sepulveda, whose parents are from Puerto Rico.
“I feel welcome every time I come. People appreciate me. They treat me like an adult, and that’s it.”
And Hardy’s influence as a coach goes well beyond the field, Gonzalez-Sepulveda said.
“He’s like a big brother or a dad,” he said.
Gonzalez-Sepulveda recalled one occasion where he came home late and his mother was so angry, “she was almost blowing up my phone.”
“And I came out of the clubhouse, and she called Hardy, and Hardy said, ’Oh, he was doing community service hours’ and all that. So my mom took it, because my mom can literally trust Hardy with my life.”
Paul Jablow is a regular freelance contributor to the Notebook.
Jim Hardy, the subject of this article, is the son of Dan Hardy, a longtime journalist and freelance contributor to the Notebook.