Inside C.B. Community Schools hangs a mural made of tiles in purples, blues and browns. It depicts a tree climbing upward, surrounded by faces. A faint line running down its middle indicates where the mural was cut in two so it could be moved from its former location. It’s a reminder that everyone has cracks—but with a little help, we can be made whole again.
Filling the gaps is part of the mission of Manayunk’s C.B. Community Schools. Founded three years ago, the school breaks with traditional educational models to meet the needs of its students, who come from all over the city. C.B. students have been in and out of foster homes, and many have had truancy problems. Most range in age from 16 to 20 years, so there are no traditional grade levels. They work toward their high school diplomas by completing a competency-based program, which was modeled after a similar school in Boston. “With traditional schools, you only get one credit if you stay the whole year,” says Roberta Trombetta, the school’s president and CEO. “With the frequent moves or trauma that keeps them out of school for some period of time, our kids would lose credits because they couldn’t stay a whole year.”
To earn credits, students must show 80 percent competency in a subject. “I was tired of seeing transcripts with all Ds, which means they know 60 percent of the content,” says Trombetta.
The program is skills-based, meaning students can cobble together credits. “If you have to miss school for some reason, none of it effects [their progress],” she adds. “Only the mastery of the skill matters.”
To establish a baseline, students are given an assessment, and the school also takes into consideration the classes and grades they’ve earned previously. In doing so, they’re able to set goals, which they refer to as the “journey to graduation.”
“[Students] have gone to many different schools, so often things are missing, duplicative or incomplete,” says Victoria Rodney, the school’s principle.
Having been in the foster care system herself, Rodney has an idea of what her students are going through. “To be able to get back into the classroom when they’re struggling with some emotional, social, financial or housing situation, and then to be put on a path of post-secondary opportunity that’s meaningful and possible, is just beautiful,” she says.
To help students who might have to leave school for a while—whether they have children to care for or lack housing—the year is broken into trimesters, and students can earn part of a credit toward graduation. The school also makes a concerted effort to be transparent about where each student stands, with progress reports that are easily accessible. “They always know where they are, and they can go talk to their teacher,” says Sloan Carter, director of student services. “They’re building trust again with the educational system that had failed them before.”
Part of building that trust is finding teachers who are undeterred by student struggles. To find those teachers, students sit in for part of the interview process. “It’s really important to have a diverse staff, teachers that look like the kids we serve,” says Trombetta.
Furthering that commitment, the school also offers myriad resources for students, including a social worker, a nurse and ready access to the dean of students. “Together, they make up our social and emotional wraparound service,” says Trombetta. “What I really want is for kids who really never trusted anyone to show up every day at 8:20 a.m. to go to school and invest in themselves. That’s when I think we’ve made a difference.”
Despite C.B.’s status as a private school, each of its 70 students is there on a full scholarship, with annual tuition costing anywhere from $17,500 to $20,000 per student. The school relies on donor funding. Pennsylvania businesses can divert taxes to organizations like C.B. via the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program to support scholarships for children in low-achieving schools to attend alternate schools better suited to their needs—and to ultimately help them graduate.
Though still in its infancy, the school already has a graduation rate of 90 percent. That’s considerably higher than national averages, where foster children are three times more likely to drop out of school, and only about 50 percent graduate from high school, according to the National Foster Youth Institute. “We feel great about it,” says Trombetta. “It’s all about getting them there.”
Of last year’s nine graduates, four are going to four-year colleges and two are going to community college. “We’re walking into [this] year confident that we’re on the sustainable path,” says Trombetta. “But our story is very much like our kids stories—the little engine that could.”