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Leveling the academic playing field for children in foster care

August 30, 2019 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose
Foster care is designed to rescue children from maltreatment, abuse and neglect. Unfortunately, it can also deliver them into such debilitating instability that the help leaves its own crippling wounds including ill-health, chronic unemployment, and substance abuse.

Foster care is also a system that disproportionately impacts minority children with African American and Latinx children overrepresented in care relative to their population size.

One answer to ensuring better life outcomes is to help youth in care receive a quality education.  Only 65% of children in foster care complete high school by age 21 and less than 10% earn a college degree.

The city’s first attempt  to address these disparities was Arise Academy Charter High School. The school, the brainchild of the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, opened in 2009. It was the first public high school in the country to focus on children in foster care.

40% of CB Community School students have attended four or more high schools. Almost 60% have been in institutionalized placement.

But almost from the beginning, Arise Academy’s life proved as troubled as the children it sought to serve. It opened in the aftermath of the Great Recession when the Philadelphia School District was desperately strapped for cash and opposition to charters was high. It was eventually awarded a charter, but it was plagued by instability.

Roberta Trombetta has had a long career working with institutionalized children. She has worked as the managing director of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, chief of operations for the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, Family Court Division, and as CEO of Carson Valley Children’s Aid. In 2012 she became Arise Academy’s third CEO in as many years and worked to turn the school around.

But the charter was revoked in 2014. The school district said that by all traditional measures — standardized test results, daily attendance, and enrollment statistics — it was a failing charter school.

Trombetta went back to the drawing board, created a 501(c) 3, found space in Roxborough, and opened a state-approved private school, CB Community School, which was designed using lessons learned from Arise Academy.

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With only room for up to 70 students, CB Community School is much smaller than Arise. It relies on contributions and not school district money, freeing it to be more flexible. The donors also fund the annual $1.5 million budget, ensuring students pay none of the $25,000 annual tuition costs.

Moreover, it infuses socio-emotional support throughout the program. “Our students come with anger, they come with self-sabotage, hopelessness and depression so we have to manage the socio-emotional culture (for them),” said Sloan Carter, director of student services.

According to Sara Schwartz, head of marketing, communications, and development, 40% of CB Community School students have attended four or more high schools. Almost 60% have been in institutionalized placement.

Anthony, a 17-year-old student has been in foster care since he was 8 years old. C.B. Community school is his 5th high school. Since arriving at the school, he has flourished.

For Anthony, the major difference between CB Community school and the child welfare system, is the school staff listens to his concerns “They tell you the court is for you, but the system does not listen to the kids, they only listen to the adults.”

Instructors at CB Community School are trained in trauma-informed practices and work alongside Carter’s team to help students cope with whatever crisis they are facing.

“Trauma has interrupted their academics. We make sure we have a robust and rigorous curriculum, but we meet them where they are and not where we want them to be,” said Education Director Amoreena Olaya.

The school has done away with typical grades and tests and has adopted a competency-based curriculum from Boston Day and Evening Academy, which started serving at-risk youth in 1995.  There aren’t traditional benchmarks at CB Community School — no rankings by GPA, nor honor rolls. Instead their student celebrations focus on becoming caring, competent and confident.

“Learning to self-regulate,” Olaya said, “is the key to them having academic success. It is what will help them go from surviving to thriving.”

Since 2015, 37 students have graduated and all of them have been connected to postsecondary opportunities, according to Schwartz.

Anthony, on track to graduate next June, has a few ideas for improving the foster care system. “At the end of the day, this is your child. Make them feel comfortable, don’t make them feel like they’re imprisoned.”

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