The Charter Approach

Philadelphia's educational experiment

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Arise Academy students James Mills, Shaliyah Robinson-Battle, Shaleekqua Williams, and Martin Hicks.

This June, the 17 students of Arise Academy’s graduating class will beat the odds as they receive their diplomas. This is because the students of Arise, a unique Philadelphia charter school finishing its second academic year, are all foster youth—a demographic reported as having only a 25% graduation rate nationally. Arise’s staff works to empower their students through education so that they may navigate a brighter future with higher paying jobs and college educations.

To counter the alarming national trend of youth who age out of foster care without many employment opportunities, Joel Welsh Davis and Rose Stalnik of the Urban Affairs Coalition conceived the idea of a charter school—a publicly funded school that adheres to different rules and regulations than traditional public schools—that foster children could attend for the entire duration of high school. The school, located in downtown Philadelphia, opened in the fall of 2009 with a charter for 200 students and is the first charter high school for foster youth in the nation.

While unpredictable hormonal surges may be the culprit of instability in the life of a typical high school student, a high school student in foster care battles tremendous obstacles from many angles. According to the Department of Human Services (DHS) Education Support Center, on average, a foster teen will switch homes between four and five times a year, meaning that he or she may change schools just as frequently. In addition to emotional difficulties stemming from turbulent home lives and trauma related to familial separation, being unable to remain at one high school makes it more difficult for foster youth to form long-lasting friendships or have consistent, meaningful rapport with teachers who know them well—benefits that many teenagers take for granted. These challenges can become even more complex when foster youth are parents themselves—why would a young mother consider school a priority when someone must supervise her child? “Very few kids purposely don’t come to school, but many have other issues in their lives that require addressing,” says Albert Bichner, Arise Academy’s interim principal.

Studies show that frequent upheavals from schools may create disruptions in learning, social skills, and confidence—all additional barriers to the upwardly mobile checkpoints of economic self-sustainability such as earning a high school diploma, attending college, and working a satisfying job. “These kids learn they can’t count on anything,” says guidance counselor Jackie Moscovici, who does college preparation work and job searches with Arise’s students based on their aspirations. “But if they have the anchor of one permanent school placement, they can create lasting friendships and relationships with teachers.”

Some Arise students’ academic abilities are as low as the pre-K level and average out to a fourth-grade reading level. “So before we can make traction in the classroom, we must connect with the students on a personal level,” Bichner says. The ethos of Arise Academy perhaps can be best conveyed through the idea that the school and its resources will fill the void of home and family and substitute as a stable refuge in its students’ lives. “The initial success at Arise is the relationships that are formed,” he says. One of Arise Academy’s goals is for staff members to forge permanent, beneficial relationships with their students and embed them within a strong support system. Many teachers, who are recruited through bulletins and Teach for America, go as far as involving themselves in their students’ home lives by taking them to sport or cultural events outside of school. “Most of them are young, so they become like surrogate big brothers or sisters,” Bichner explains.

Dianne Pough, Arise Academy’s first valedictorian, is one such student who benefitted from the personal approach taken by Arise’s teachers. “The teachers saw where I had my credits and helped me speed through,” she says. Those efforts allowed her to graduate a year earlier than originally anticipated. (Traditional class years do not organize Arise’s students; instead, students graduate based on the accumulation of credits.) Pough credits her teachers with impacting her life positively. “The teachers would talk to you to see if you needed help,” she says. “If they knew you were missing class for legitimate reasons, they’d help you out.”

“I don’t think there’s any way to keep from developing personal relationships with the students,” says Moscovici. “This type of job attracts a certain kind of person, and those types of people are the people who are going to connect with these students.” Because the guidance counselor takes student success personally, she adheres to the adage of honesty as the best policy as she counsels students on reasonable career possibilities. “Most students say they want to be a doctor or a nurse because that’s all they know about. I help them learn what else is out there. When I have a student who’s a straight D student who says he wants to be a neurosurgeon but has failed every science class thrown his way… we typically need another plan,” she says.

Arise’s administration believes that a staff well-versed in the challenges faced by teens in foster care will be more prepared to help students navigate situations than staff at a regular public school. “The staff realizes that kids have great needs here, and they’re willing to provide for them,” says Bichner, who echoes Moscovici’s sentiment that teachers will go to great lengths to help students make good decisions. “When a young man, one of our students, told me that he’d been arrested for burglary, I told him that he could have spoken to someone at the school about his financial situation and we could have helped him. It’s unfortunate that he resorted to a bad decision in order to solve a problem, but we let the students know that they can come to us,” he says.

Arise Academy recognizes that because of the trauma many of the students have experienced throughout their lives, the staff will need to adapt a more accommodating outlook on misconduct (except in cases of assault). Two classrooms have experimented with a unique approach by implementing the Sanctuary Model, a theory-based model developed for traumatized individuals. The model emphasizes the future possibilities for a troubled individual’s life rather than fixating on his or her past, which has proven effective in providing a therapeutic structure for some foster children. “With the Sanctuary Model, the kids check in at the beginning of the class by sharing how they feel, what help they need, and what goals they have for the day. They identify their academic needs and their personal needs. Staff and students both find [the Sanctuary Model] to be an effective best practice model, and we may implement it in more of our classrooms,” says Bichner.

Cornelius Lincoln, Khari Manor, James Mills, and Jacquaya Randolph perform in Arise Academy's 2011 play.

Because Arise is so new, it is difficult to gauge the success of the program. Although all nine students of last year’s graduating class applied to college under Moscovici’s guidance, none have enrolled in college yet. Two are employed, and the others continue to receive support from the school. Pough, the school’s 2010 valedictorian, returned to Arise as an employee. She currently works in one of the administrative offices, as school officials recognized that her respected status as valedictorian would make her an inspiring resource to other students on the diploma track. Pough plans to eventually attend Temple University and pursue a career in nursing.

Bichner acknowledges that education and connections go well beyond the day of graduation at Arise, but he maintains that this is similar to any American teenager’s continued dependence on his parents after graduating from high school. “When kids graduate, they still need support. This is true regardless of a child’s background,” he says.

Many of Arise’s students attend the school longer than they remain at a home placement. Arise’s staff recognizes this by trying to make the school as home-like as possible. “We’re all dreaming of the day we have a kitchen or can sit down to make home-like family meals. Eventually we’d like to have home-cooked meals here and a culinary program and nutrition course,” says Bichner. Adding to the familial atmosphere is that virtually every student is known by name. “It’s really critical with kids earning trust for them to know that someone cares about them,” he says.

Pough agrees. “A lot of kids wouldn’t get a lot of the same support at a regular high school. [Arise] is centered around kids from DHS, so many of the kids have similar stories. It’s a smaller environment, so the teachers are more attentive when you need help,” she says.

Arise’s central Philadelphia location means that other resources and programs for foster youth are nearby. “The founders had a vision about networking some services together and collaborating with the Department of Human Services and becoming a support network for kids,” explains Bichner. The downtown location makes it transportation-friendly, and enables its students to continue to attend school even when a new family placement uproots them from one side of the city to the other. The Achieving Independence Center, which helps students with college readiness and extended education, is close by as well. The DHS Education Support Center is located next to Arise Academy, and a juvenile law center that advocates on behalf of foster youth is also in the area.

In recent years, the child welfare community has placed an emphasis on educational imperatives. In 2008, Congress unanimously passed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which identified improving educational stability and opportunities for foster children as one of its goals. The Blueprint for Change, mandated in December of 2009 in Philadelphia, also supports the academic success of foster children. According to its website, the Blueprint was designed to help “city leaders develop a comprehensive service plan and a coordinated strategy focused on placing volunteers with established organizations that are addressing critical needs in the community.” More information on the Blueprint is available online at www.BlueprintforChangeOnline.net.

Teacher Steve Silvasy with students Martin Hicks, James Mills, and Shaliyah Robinson-Battle at Eagles Flight night last year. Funds raised at the Philadelphia Eagles event will benefit youth programs in the region.

“The mayor and commissioner here [in Philadelphia] had been thinking about how to do this work when the Fostering Connections law came about,” says Liza Rodriguez, the director of the DHS Education Support Center, which began in May 2010. “There has been a big effort to increase [high school] graduation rates. In Philadelphia, kids that experience foster care have the highest dropout rates. This is consistent with national data.”

Potential students learn about Arise Academy through caseworkers or grassroots outreach initiatives. DHS, which acts as a liaison between the state’s welfare services and Arise Academy, also shares information about the charter school with care providers and foster families. If a teenager decides that Arise sounds appealing, he or she will apply based on his or her own interest. “It’s not a mandated assignment that kids have to attend Arise—it’s an opportunity for them, and a somewhat unique one at that,” says Bichner.

Arise provides its students with the typical high school experiences such as drama programs, prom, and sports teams. “Last year, we had one of the finest proms I’ve ever seen,” says Bichner, who has 39 years of experience in Philadelphia schools. As a charter school, Arise receives partial funding from the state and the School District of Philadelphia, but a lesser percentage than regular public schools in terms of the money allotted per student. “Our budget is challenged like so many budgets; funding here is a problem,” Bichner acknowledges. Private contributions also finance the school.

Martin Hicks, Jacquaya Randolfph, Daquan Tate, Kalea Baker, Terrel Randolph, and Naje Taylor during a trip to the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore.

Other cites have exhibited curiosity in the charter school model for foster children as well. Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Washington, DC, may implement similar programs. Meanwhile, the New York Foundling, a CWLA member agency, opened Mott Haven Charter* in the fall of 2008, a public charter school in the Bronx whose population consists of one-third foster children, one-third children in families receiving preventive services, and one-third children from the general population. The school is unique in that it combines academics with New York Foundling’s community services in the same building in order to give students their best chance at academic success. A mental health clinic and a primary clinic exist on the premises, and social workers and caseworkers are readily available. Like Arise Academy, Mott Haven Charter is a new institution. It currently has 175 students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade. The school will continue to grow by a grade each year, so that the school may “grow its own culture,” and eventually will serve 314 students in grades K-8, according to Bill Baccaglini, the Foundling’s executive director.

“The theory is we can use all of the child welfare services at our disposal to address the issues that undermine academic achievement in the community. The idea was to co-locate all of our services with a K-8 charter school,” says Baccaglini. In addition to educators aware of the students’ special needs and individualized education plans, which are specifically tailored behavioral goals for special needs students, there are many social workers available to intervene when teachers suspect that children may have problems at home. In those cases, Mott Haven coordinates with their child welfare resources to engage a caseworker.

Although charter schools with student bodies comprised of foster children are a relatively novel concept, the limited data available appears promising. With the ongoing emphasis on education imperatives, the upcoming years may see the development of programs similar to Arise Academy and Mott Haven Charter, in the hopes of eventually seeing more college- and career-bound foster youth.

Laural Hobbes is an editorial intern at CWLA.

*Look for a Spotlight On article about Mott Haven Charter in an upcoming issue of Children’s Voice.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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