Private high school focuses on Philly kids in foster care

Charine Paladino, 18, at C.B. Community Schools, whose goal is to ensure that youths ages 16 to 20 who have bounced between foster homes have a safe and stable place to learn.

In her young life, Charine Paladino, 18, has had more than her share of trauma.

A mother who was addicted to drugs. The beloved grandmother who raised her died. She dropped out of Martin Luther King High School in 10th grade. At 16, she tried to commit suicide and was hospitalized for six weeks.

The day Paladino left the hospital in June of 2015, the city's Department of Human Services placed her with a foster mother in Germantown who insisted that she return to school.

To make up for the two years of education she had lost, Paladino is working hard at C.B. Community Schools in Manayunk to earn a diploma in 2018.

"I like this school," Paladino said. "We're not students here. It's more like a family. I like that there are small classes so the teachers have time to teach us things. They help us."

The 62 other students at C.B. have stories like Paladino's, according to Roberta Trombetta, who founded the private school in 2015 when Arise Academy, the nation's first charter school for students in foster care, closed in West Oak Lane.

Trombetta, who had been the CEO of Arise, staff, and board members were so convinced their students needed and deserved their own school, they rounded up money from donors and converted to a private school.

The goal was to ensure that youth, age 16 to 20, who have been buffeted by change and bounced between foster homes would at least have a safe, stable school.

The promise was: "There is this one place - no matter where you move," Trombetta said.

C.B. Community received its private school license from the state Department of Education in August 2015. And all but two of the 25 students who were still at Arise after graduation that year enrolled when the private school opened at the charter's former location that fall. Ten of the 11 eligible graduates earned diplomas in June.

Now in its second year, C.B. Community moved to the Mishkan Shalom synagogue in Manayunk this fall and aims to help kids in foster care get on track, defy the odds, graduate, and lead happy productive lives.

In addition to seven academic teachers, the full-time staff includes a guidance counselor, a social worker, a nurse, and a director of student services - Sloan Carter - who fields emergency calls from students at all hours.

"I get calls that 'My foster parent put me out,' " said Carter, who also worked at Arise. "I get phone calls, unfortunately, 'I've been raped; I need help.' . . . I get phone calls from kids who say, 'I'm homeless. I have nowhere to go.' "

Researchers say students in the child-welfare system also are at high risk of dropping out. They have gaps in their education and are behind because they have to change schools when caseworkers move them to foster homes in other neighborhoods.

"The biggest problem they have is they have been moved - especially older kids, [who] tend to be moved a lot," said David Fair, deputy CEO at Turning Points for Children, an agency that provides foster care services in the Lower Northeast, South, and Southwest Philadelphia. "It's different to foster a 15-year-old than an infant."

And as a small school, C.B. Community knows its students and can work closely with their agency caseworkers to keep track of their needs, he said.

"It has been an amazing success," said Fair. Turning Points has about 10 students at the school this fall. "It's just what these kids are looking for."

In place of the regular curriculum used at district high schools and at Arise, C.B. Community follows a model developed in Boston that allows students to advance at their own pace through smaller units in their subjects. When they show they are competent by mastering 80 percent of the course content, they earn a credit toward the 21.5 they need for a diploma in Pennsylvania.

Trombetta said her school is so committed to the model that the C.B. in its name stands for "competency-based."

Fair, who also was involved with Arise, said that the new instructional approach is one of many improvements at the private school.

Arise, which opened in 2009, was beset by management and academic problems. There was high turnover of board members, administrators, and staff. Finances were shaky, and there wasn't enough money to pay for the extensive counseling and support services the students needed.

Steve Wanner, chair of C.B. Community, recalls that he was named board chairman of Arise the day before the School Reform Commission voted in the spring of 2012 to begin the process of closing it. The SRC later gave the school a 12-month reprieve to shore up its finances and academics.

Trombetta, who was hired as acting CEO in August 2013 and brought in a new team, argued that the school was making strides. But in early 2014, the SRC said benchmarks weren't being met and started the process of revoking the charter.

Rather than spending money on lawyers to fight, Arise surrendered its charter in June 2015 and closed. Trombetta, Wanner and others switched gears to make the transition to a private school.

With the cloud of uncertainty over the school's future lifted, Wanner and board member Adam B. Landau said they had more success raising funds from private donors, corporations, and foundations to cover the $20,000 cost of educating each student.

"We're a tuition school where our kids don't pay tuition," Wanner said. "All of our funding comes from third parties."

The school also has partnered with nonprofits that provide some services at no cost. The Center for Grieving Children in East Falls, for example, runs eight-week counseling sessions for students who have lost important people in their lives.

C.B. Community recently received approval to participate in a state program that allows corporations to earn tax credits for contributing to scholarship programs to help low-income students attend nonpublic schools.

Wanner said the seed money from a small group of benefactors who believed in the school's mission had been essential.

"If you think about a rocket, it got us out of the atmosphere," he said. "The booster is falling off over the next couple of years, and we're looking at alternative [funding] models that will give us long-term sustainability."

The mission is to keep the school going for such students as Charine and Michelle Green, 20, who graduated in June and is now in the Philadelphia Job Corps' culinary arts program.

Green, who entered the child welfare system at 17, said her experience at the school had been critically important for her.

"They encourage you to stay in school so you can finish," she said. "If you know anybody, a kid in the system, I would encourage them to go to C.B."

martha.woodall@phillynews.com215-854-2789@marwooda