This fall, the Philadelphia private school where I work faced the same dilemma as many schools across the nation: as Coronavirus numbers surged, should we shut down? The difference for us is that even in the best of times outside of a pandemic, our students are constantly facing crisis. I work at C.B. Community Schools, a small high school for youth in the child welfare system, affectionately known to our community as “CB.”
Closing our doors would be particularly painful for our young people, so we decided, in the absence of a mandated shutdown, to strike a careful balance, remaining open three days per week and meeting virtually the other two. Our students were grateful. One student told us:
“I don’t know what I would do if CB wasn’t open. I was so isolated at my grandmom’s house.”
That sense of isolation is just one of the many struggles present for youth in child welfare. The outcomes for young people aging out of the child welfare system reveal that they’re being set up for failure. Poorly funded public schools can’t meet the needs of these vulnerable youth, and the child welfare system too often turns to institutionalization, particularly in Pennsylvania. Students who age out of the system face low high school graduation and postsecondary success rates, high rates of homelessness and unemployment. 1 in 4 adolescents in foster care have PTSD. Philadelphia is a city that has been traumatized by poverty, violence and institutional racism affecting young people in the child welfare system, the majority of whom are BIPOC, at a significantly higher rate.
This is why C.B. Community Schools was built.
In 2015, recognizing the dire need for a new kind of high school for young people involved in the child welfare system in Philadelphia, C.B. Community School was created to serve vulnerable young people in the system—students who are at risk of institutional placement, involved in the justice system, or at risk of dropping out. Every student receives a fully paid scholarship to attend.
The Coronavirus pandemic further demonstrates the need to address systemic issues in the child welfare system. Young people aging out of foster care will face even more significant challenges in achieving stability due to the pandemic. More than 50% of CB students will age out of the system on their own at 21.
Nearly 60% of our students spent time in residential placement(s) and 30% have been ensnared in juvenile justice. Separated from their communities and support systems, our students were thrust into institutional settings before they were 18. Students attended an average of 3 - 4 high schools prior to CB, some as high as seven. Frequent housing and educational transitions leave our students undereducated, falling behind, and discouraged about their futures. Students feel the gradual loss of agency in their lives. Our unique student body needs an educational alternative to traditional schools to build a clear path forward toward independence.
So what does this alternative look like at CB? It looks like a small, healing-centered school co-created with 70 students who have the lived experience to help us aid them in their journey to rebuild agency in their lives. It looks like a police-free school where our funding is invested in a full Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) team of professionals who understand that trauma does impact learning. It looks like a competency-based academic model that is transparent, rigorous and doesn’t penalize students for life happening. It looks like preparation for diverse postsecondary opportunities that are without judgement. It looks like dedicated, caring teachers who serve as mentors to our students. It looks like love in action.
If there is one thing the CB community knows, it’s that our school’s success depends on adapting to students’ needs. When the pandemic hit, we started a full virtual learning platform and provided 24/7 SEL and medical support to more than 100 students and alumni, including a food pantry and an emergency fund. During the summer, we developed a socially-distanced, paid summer internship program focusing on caring for mental health during COVID-19 in partnership with Minding Your Mind, creating jobs for students and a space to process their mental health journeys together.
T., a CB student, with her projects from the summer internship program.
Virtual learning was a struggle for our students in the spring. They missed the in-person contact with our team, the shared experience of their peers. So CB adapted again, moving our June 2020 graduation to August so that our eligible graduates could complete their coursework in-person and together, with the help of our dedicated teachers who came in during their summer vacation to work with the grads. On August 5th, 2020, we were able to celebrate 9 graduates, matching the 90% graduation rate we’ve maintained throughout our existence—a mark well above the 65% national graduation rate for young people in foster care, twice the local grad rate for youth in foster care, and almost three times the local rate for justice-involved youth.
On graduation day, our student speaker was a young woman sporting fresh neon sneakers for the occasion who had been in foster care most of her life. She struggled during the ceremony and became very upset. After collecting herself with the support of the CB team, she started her speech:
“I apologize, I’m going through a lot today. My family is not here.”
Our students’ traumas are often present, even in joyous moments. She continued on to talk about the impact of CB in her life: “When I came to CB I already knew this was gonna be my home. I’m the first person in my family to graduate.”
At CB, our students know that they matter. As they rebuild agency in their lives, students rewrite their stories to reflect the amazing, resilient versions of everything they are becoming.
I am grateful that while a shutdown isn’t mandated we are keeping our doors open at CB. Even in the best of times, our students in the child welfare system need a loving school. Right now, it is a lifeline.
Sara Schwartz is in her fifth year on the leadership team at C.B. Community Schools as the former Director of Social Services and the current Director of Communications and Development.