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Elmer Smith: Charter school for foster kids a place of learning, independence & heart

LYNN WALLACE heard them say that there would be a lottery to pick the first students to attend the only charter school in America for foster children.

LYNN WALLACE heard them say that there would be a lottery to pick the first students to attend the only charter school in America for foster children.

She also understood that a lottery was the only fair way Arise Academy can fill 200 slots from a pool of potential students that numbered close to 250 by the application deadline.

But she wasn't willing to leave her daughter's future to chance.

"My daughter is going to this school," she told me last week. "I just feel that.

"She is 17 and she's been in the ninth grade twice. It looks like she's going to be in the ninth grade again.

"It's very frustrating. But I like the way this school lets them work at their own pace."

If my public school math serves me correctly, she's got an 80 percent chance of being in the first class at Arise Academy when it opens this September at 1118 Market St.

Arise students advance and graduate at their own pace. The length of their days will vary according to need. Classes will continue year round and well into the evenings if need be.

The school will serve breakfast and lunch for the 9 a.m.-to-4:10 p.m. students. Those who stay until 6 will have dinner at school.

Those are some of the accommodations Arise is making to meet its unique challenges.

About 75 percent of the 13-year-olds in foster care will have dropped out by the time they're 18, according to a study done by the Philadelphia Youth Collaborative. The University of Wisconsin's Institute for Research on Poverty found that half the children raised in foster care were jobless two years after they left school and a third were underemployed.

But much of what makes it exciting for foster parents like Lynn Wallace and the ninth-to-12th graders who chose to go to Arise is the self-paced academic program and small classes. Classes will have a maximum of 20 students.

The public-school cookie cutter doesn't fit this population. Roger Jackson, principal at Arise, was blunt in his assessment of what he will do to distinguish it from most public schools.

"Public schools are designed to do themselves," Jackson said. "If students get educated, it's just a byproduct.

"This is a chance to do education right. We're doing a student-centered academic program."

Jackson's most important start-up job will be recruiting a teaching staff that can handle the kind of program he's devising.

"They will be subject-certified," he said. "But they will have to be flexible. They have to have a heart for kids. You can't teach that."

The school will provide frequent feedback.

"Every 10 weeks there will be a report," Jackson told would-be students at an open house/pizza party at the building last week. "It will say how much progress you are making and where you need help."

Arise students must meet the same state mandates as students in all Pennsylvania schools. They will be required to wear uniforms, and it won't be an open campus.

The school will encourage internships for all its students, an important feature for students who often "age out" of the foster-care system before graduation. Making them independent is more important than it is for students from traditional families who are more likely to support them into early adulthood.

The $2.7 million budget is enough to fund its basic program. But it is short of its goals.

"We'd like to have about $200,000 more so that we could put another adult in each class," said Mark Spector, treasurer of the school's board.

The school district gave Arise a three-year charter approval last month. That may be just about enough for Lynn Wallace.

She has raised about 10 foster children as a single parent.

She has adopted four of them and one is about to start La Salle University. She is committed to seeing her 17-year-old daughter graduate even if the foster-care system cuts them off before graduation.

"It won't kill us," she said.

"I've had her since the second grade. I'm not going to kick her out.

"But I think this school is going to be what makes the difference for her." *

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