This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
“I’m a visual learner.”
Sofia Rivera has been counting: She’s lived in seven foster homes.
“I’ve been in and out of the system since I was young, due to family problems, being in an unstable environment. Growing up, being in the system, it was challenging. It was hard,” she said. “But I always go back home” to her mother and grandmother.
Now 18 and living in a group home, Rivera has been at C.B. Community School since March.
Before that, she attended Walter Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School, but it abruptly closed in the middle of her 10th-grade year. She went to Frankford High until the end of 11th grade, but fell behind. Then she was sent to Philadelphia Learning Academy North, or PLAN, one of what the School District calls “opportunity schools.” The students just call them credit recovery schools.
Most of the day, students learn at their own pace in front of a computer. “I didn’t like it. It didn’t work out for me,” Rivera said. “I’m a visual learner. I have to sit in a classroom and understand more than sitting in front of a computer.”
Someone at her group home recommended C.B. Community, where, she said, “they help you with a lot. They will go on your pace and help you individually.”
She hopes to participate in a dual enrollment program with Community College of Philadelphia and study health and science on the way to becoming a registered nurse. The school helped her apply for Supervised Independent Living through the Department of Human Services, in which young people who are close to aging out of the system transition into their own apartments and get help with rent, budgeting and life skills.
At C.B. Community, there are only 10 to 12 students in a class instead of the 35 that Frankford had. She likes the school’s competency-based approach to academics.
“I passed all my math and science classes,” she said. Reading that she is “highly competent” or “competent” is much better than seeing letter grades, she said. It gives her confidence that she can actually do something.
“I’ll never see a ‘not yet,’” she said.
Rivera has set her goal to graduate in March.
“I was a hyperactive kid.”
Edwin Baez likes the gym, and he likes to draw.
“It’s therapeutic,” he explains. “It keeps my mind off everything else when I focus on painting.”
Originally from North Philadelphia, he has shuttled among foster homes and group homes because of an unstable home life.
Before coming to C.B. Community, he attended Kensington Urban High School, which has since merged into one bigger school with Kensington Business.
“I’d go into the school and leave. It’s like they didn’t care what you did,” he said of that experience. “When I did stay in school, I was in the hallways. They kicked me out of there.”
Baez was 11 or 12 when he was taken from his mother, whose name he has tattooed on his arm.
“She wasn’t neglecting us or anything. The judge didn’t want her smoking and us being there,” he said, referring to himself and his sister. “He wanted her to get clean. She just came home from jail. She’s doing better.”
His saga in foster care includes being sent away.
“I kept moving through. Nobody wanted to keep me,” he said – even his grandmother, who said he tried to run away.
“I was a hyperactive kid. I didn’t care what nobody said. I didn’t have no structure. That’s when I went to the group home,” then to an aunt’s house. But when his sister went “on the run” from the Department of Human Services, he joined her.
“When she left, I left,” he said. “We never came back. We was on the run a couple months. Just being out on the streets.” They generally had a place to stay, he said. Finally, DHS caught up with him, and he went back to a group home.
The one constant through this period was C.B. Community, which helped DHS try to find him.
“The difference between this school and other schools is like, education-wise, they help you more,” Baez said. “They’re able to focus on you more. It’s more support. Even besides the education part, if there are family issues, they’re always here to help. If you have any problems, they’re always here.
“I got in trouble. They made me come back. … I knew they wanted to help me. I know there’s only so much they can do. They try.”
Now he is trying to focus on getting his diploma. He thinks he may be able to graduate in June 2019 if he works hard at it.
“I got to get an education and become something in life,” he said. He has his eye on going to a trade school and opening his own business as a mechanic. Or maybe an electrician.
On his 18th birthday in November, the staff took him to get his ID.
He allows himself a smile. “C. B. Community helps with our needs better. It’s a smaller school,” he said. As far as he’s concerned, “this is probably the best school in Philly.”
“Getting into arguments” with a brother.
“My mom died when I was 9; my dad died when I was 10,” said Amun Jones-Bey, now 18.
After that, he was living with a brother who was in his 20s and attending Sankofa charter school, but the situation wasn’t ideal. The two moved around a lot, first to West Philadelphia, where he attended John Barry Elementary, then to North Philadelphia, where he attended Thurgood Marshall Elementary.
He and his brother “started getting into arguments. One day, I said I didn’t want to be there anymore,” he said. “DHS got involved and took me away.”
He was placed in a group home, and there he met Sloan Carter, who is C.B. Community’s director of student services and all-around house parent.
This is his third year at C.B. Community, and he hopes to graduate in June.
Self-effacing, with a shy smile, Jones-Bey explains how, since starting at C.B. Community, he has moved from a group home to a shelter to a foster home, then back to another group home. It was a difficult odyssey, filled with tension and rejection.
“I met the foster parents and I went to live with them for the whole summer, but that didn’t work out,” he said. “I wasn’t used to living with another family at the time.”
One day, he overheard the foster parents talking. “They were saying how they were thinking they should never have got me.” He left. It was his birthday.
Through all this, he had the school to go to for support. “I went to the group home,” he said. “They worked with me all day, way past school hours. They were here all night to help me get into the group home I’m in now. I like it there.”
The school also helped him finally get needed surgery on his hip over the summer.
C.B. Community has a student-run custodial business to clean up the school, and Jones-Bey is its longest-serving employee.
With counselor Megan Hannah, he is considering his college options, which include Drexel University and Cabrini University. He wants to be a nurse. If that doesn’t work out, he might try criminal justice. He has a 3.6 GPA.
“I’m not a survivor on the streets.”
At age 19, Naikeia Jennings is a mother of two. A runaway at age 15, she has been at C.B. Community since it opened and attended Arise Academy before that.
Reflecting on her life, she called herself “boy-crazy” and “sneaky.” Her mom had lots of boyfriends; her father was in and out of jail and had “tons of kids.” She and her sister felt like “we don’t have nobody.”
She moved in with a grandmother, a “lovely person who treated us as her own.” But a lot of people were living in the house. “She had food, but not always enough.”
Jennings ran away because “I met supposedly the love of my life, and I wanted to do everything I could to keep us together.” But, as she put it, “I’m not a survivor on the streets,” and when he left her, “I was very scared. I turned myself in.”
She gave birth to her son in a group home. Her first foster home “was kind of OK,” and she was placed in Beeber Middle School, although she had virtually no school records. They were planning to send her to Overbrook High, but “a lot of bad things happened, and I decided I didn’t want to go there.” Her foster parent found Sloan Carter, C.B. Community’s director of student services, and “she told me about this school and how great it was.”
It was having children, she said, that turned her into a student. Her son is nearly 4, and her daughter is almost 1.
“I wasn’t really a big learner. I changed a lot since I had kids,” she said. “They put the thought in my head, ‘You got kids, you got to get right into your work.’”
Jennings now lives in a foster home in Germantown that she likes. Her children are in subsidized day care when she is in school. She still has a lot of work to do to graduate.
“I missed out on my 9th-grade year. I kept leaving school; my mind wasn’t focused,” she said. She thinks she may be able to graduate by December 2018. She takes a class for students who want to go into health care. She aspires to be an oncologist “and help people with cancer.” First stop on the college journey will likely be Community College of Philadelphia.
“Without this school, I really think I’d be a dropout,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of schools that didn’t have patience for kids. When I leave here, I really hope that I continue moving forward and being successful in my life.”