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Community Partnership School launching first class

At Community Partnership School's first graduation Friday, the departing fifth graders will give short speeches about the moments at the small, private school in North Philadelphia that meant the most to each of them:

At Community Partnership School's first graduation Friday, the departing fifth graders will give short speeches about the moments at the small, private school in North Philadelphia that meant the most to each of them:

A first-grade party. Praise for an academic accomplishment. And a "once-in-a lifetime experience" sharing the stage with Bill Cosby at a school fund-raiser at Temple University last month.

But the inaugural graduation at this close-knit school, which is funded largely through donations, will mark more than personal milestones in the lives of 11 students and their families.

It will validate the vision of educators, philanthropists, and community activists that inner-city children - taught with a private school curriculum and approach - can succeed and move on to rigorous, college-prep schools.

In a first for the nation, Germantown Academy, a private school in Fort Washington, five years ago opened Community Partnership School with a social service agency, Philadelphia's Project H.O.M.E. The school now has 85 students in prekindergarten to fifth grade from its North Philadelphia neighborhood.

"The kids are soaring!" said Sister Mary Scullion, who created Project H.O.M.E., which works to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness.

"The dream and the hope that this would be a meaningful opportunity and lay a great educational foundation for students to succeed is being fulfilled in ways we could not have foreseen."

"I'm extraordinarily excited this has happened," said James Connor, head of Germantown Academy.

Years ago, he dreamed about opening a school where low-income children could receive the same education as Germantown Academy elementary students whose parents pay $21,000 to send them to the venerable private school, with 1,100 students from pre-K through 12th grade.

Connor spoke to the first graders on the day in 2006 that Community Partnership School opened in shared space at Project H.O.M.E.'s Honickman Learning Center at 1936 N. Judson St.

"Now they're heading off to sixth grade," Connor said. "The opportunities these kids will have is what it was all about from the beginning."

Graduates will attend private schools, including Springside and the Norwood-Fontbonne Academy in Chestnut Hill; William Penn Charter in East Falls; and Greene Street Friends in Germantown, as well as such charter schools as Young Scholars and KIPP in North Philadelphia and Independence in Center City.

"I think sometimes folks see this neighborhood and think independent schools can't work here," said Linn Vaughters, director of enrollment, who worked with fifth-grade families for two years to help them find schools that would be a good match.

Vaughters, who has worked at other private schools, said Community Partnership demonstrates "you can bring this type of rigor to this type of neighborhood, and our kids can do it."

Eric C. Jones, head of the school, said that like Germantown Academy and other private schools, Community Partnership focuses on achievement.

"All [the schools] talk about going to college. All of them talk about academic success and achieving at a high level," said Jones, a former director of diversity at Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square. "That sensibility is ingrained here."

Overseen by an independent board, Community Partnership is a small neighborhood school with 14 or fewer students per class. It provides art, music, technology, and Spanish instruction and an after-school program with enrichment activities.

Families are expected to work closely with the school.

"We believe that kids, no matter what their background . . . have a better chance of succeeding over the long haul if they have somebody looking out for them at home," Jones said.

The school spends $17,500 to educate each child, but with financial aid averaging $16,500, most families pay a fraction of the cost. Preference is given to low-income families from the community, with tuition based on income. All families pay something.

"We have families who can afford to pay a few hundred dollars a month," Jones said. "But for many, $20 a month is a stretch."

Tuition, he said, covers about 5 percent of the annual $1.5 million budget. The school receives some federal Title I money based on the poverty level of the neighborhood and some money through the state's Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, which allows businesses to receive tax credits for donations for scholarships for low-income children to attend nonpublic schools.

Most of its money comes from private donations. The Cosby event raised more than $200,000 for aid.

Standardized tests show most of the school's students perform at or above the national average in reading and math, according to the school. But as a private school, Community Partnership is able to focus more on children's individual growth than on test scores.

"I'm thankful that we're in a place where testing is really more about instruction, learning about how we are doing," Jones said.

With small classes, teachers and staff can meet frequently with children and their families when problems arise. "We take the time to try and figure out what the deeper stuff is," Jones said. "These are not robots we're working with. They're human beings, and there is complexity there."

The school has told the fifth-grade families it will remain connected to ensure their children succeed in middle school.

"The overall experience has been a good one," said Khalia Butts, whose daughter Kendi, 10, will attend Norwood-Fontbonne Academy.

"We're excited about the next venture," Butts said. "But it is bittersweet to leave."