C.B. Community Schools: A New Model for Competency-Based, Trauma-Informed Education


At Inside SEL, our mission is to act megaphone, amplifying the great work being done by leaders in education and social-emotional learning across the country. On a regular basis, our team speaks with administrators, educators, entrepreneurs, researchers, and policymakers who are innovating within the field of SEL and works to help share their stories.

Earlier this month, our founder spoke with Sara Schwartz, Director of Social Services and Leadership Team Member at C.B. Community Schools, a high school that is specifically designed to serve students who are currently in (or were formerly involved in) the child welfare or juvenile justice system.


Inside SEL: How did C.B. Community Schools originally come into existence?

Sara Schwartz: C.B. Community Schools (CBCS) in Philadelphia, PA, came into existence in the 2015 – 2016 school year. There was an identified need for a school setting that provided additional academic and SEL supports for young people in the foster care and juvenile justice systems who were not successful in neighborhood schools due to the trauma and transitions they had experienced in their lives. With only 65% of students in foster care completing high school by age 21, only 3-10% earning a college degree (National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, 2018) and only 46% employed at age 26 (Child Trends, 2017), it was and is still clear there is a need to provide additional supportive services to these young people.

Roberta Trombetta, our school’s Founder, started the high school to serve young people in the foster care and juvenile justice systems through a transparent, Competency-Based educational framework. She started a 501(c)3 and raised enough money privately to open a new high school, C.B. Community Schools, with a mission to engage, educate, and ensure that vulnerable students, who are currently involved in or were formerly involved in the child welfare or juvenile justice system, learn, heal, and grow into caring, confident, competent citizens of the world.

CBCS offers full scholarships to all of our students with the only requirement being that students are at risk of entering care, in care or recently discharged from care whether they are in the dependency and/or delinquency system. CBCS relies on private and foundation funding for the majority of our work as well as ongoing partnerships with the Department of Human Services and Community Behavioral Health. In the past four years, CBCS has had a 80% or higher attendance rate, a 90-100% graduation rate and 100% of graduates connected to postsecondary opportunities of their choosing ranging from 4-year colleges to vocational job training programs.

Inside SEL: It seems that partnerships with other organizations in the community play an important role in the work that you’re doing. Can you speak to how some of those partnerships have been setup and now benefit your students?

Sara Schwartz: It truly takes a village to provide our students with the services they deserve, and they deserve this village! CBCS partners with over 40 SEL and postsecondary partners to provide our students with the SEL supports, extracurricular activities and postsecondary exposure they need to explore their passions and begin to make postsecondary plans. The CBCS leadership team has set up all of these partnerships over the past four years and continues to expand each year. By maintaining and expanding current partnerships and constantly seeking new services for our young people, we have created a network of SEL support and postsecondary options for our students throughout Philadelphia and beyond. We also work with our partners as the liaisons, particularly our employment partners, to develop a trauma-informed approach to working with our students. Our partners are truly incredible, supporting our students to have new experiences, connect with scholarships and advocating for them to create the lives they envision and dream for themselves!

Our partnerships include a legal clinic with the University of Pennsylvania, Outward Bound programming, grief counseling, student employment with local business, parenting and onsite health and an onsite outpatient mental health clinic. We work closely with child advocates and child welfare social workers to create a community advocacy approach for our students in the court system. CBCS has numerous postsecondary partners and was integral in planning for the Single Point of Contact programming for foster youth at various colleges and universities in the surrounding area.

By creating a one-stop-shop for our young people, their caregivers and support systems, CBCS eases the burden of traveling all around the city for appointments and creates a true continuum of care in our small community that supports our students and everyone in their lives!


Inside SEL: Can you elaborate on the competency-based approach that is at the heart of CB Community Schools’ educational philosophy?

Sara Schwartz: Many of our students have been to multiple schools and foster homes and sometimes these decisions are not made in their best educational interests. These transitions create disruption in their educational processes and students often do not have accurate school records. CBCS remedies discrepancies in educational transcripts and works hard to advocate with residential placements and the School District for accurate official transcripts. These inaccuracies in transcripts are extremely discouraging to our young people and create distrust with the education system. We work hard to re-engage our students and find all of their accurate credit information but we often see students struggle while they process the misinformation they have been receiving throughout their years in high school.

CBCS uses a competency-based approach aligned to the Pennsylvania Standards and Common Core that allows students to progress to more advanced work upon demonstration of learning by applying specific skills and content, not age, or time in a seat. In competency-based practices, a course is organized into measurable learning objectives that are shared with students. Students take responsibility for their learning thereby increasing their engagement and motivation. Competencies are the “big ideas” of a standard and are written in “student friendly” language. Competencies are then broken down into benchmarks. Benchmarks are discrete measurable skills that build up to a competency and as students demonstrate mastery of each benchmark the curriculum ensures that students are gaining a depth of knowledge.


Students also receive immediate feedback when assessment occurs. This feedback increases positive adult attention and builds student confidence through frequent and consistent checking for understanding. This is used to encourage students to return to difficult concepts and skills until they achieve mastery. In our school, competencies include academic standards as well as lifelong learning skills. The transparency of competency-based education aligns with our school model because in our model students know what they need to learn and how they will get there. For our students who have been traumatized, knowing where they are going and being able to see and record their own mastery of benchmarks and attainment of competencies allows them to actually trust the process and feel in control of their own lives.

Inside SEL: What role does social emotional learning have in your school and the curriculum you’ve built?

Sara Schwartz: Our SEL model creates a positive educational setting that encourages behavior change through inclusive, strengths-based, and community-focused SEL programming and interventions that are unconditional in their flexibility to meet our students’ social and emotional needs. Integral to the CBCS model is the incorporation of culturally relevant wraparound services to support the safety and stability of our students both inside and outside of school. Through the development of caring relationships and adaptive skills, our students develop confidence in themselves, competence in their abilities to identify support systems, competence to navigate resources and be positive citizens of our community and the world.

Our Plan for Peace and Justice (PFP&J) is comprised of thirteen commitments that are kept by our entire school community. The PFP&J is our framework for promoting peace and justice within our community. It helps our students to identify strengths and goals, and the internal and external supports needed to make positive decisions. The PFP&J provides students with the foundation to make healthy pro-social choices in challenging circumstances both in school and in the community. Our school values are embedded in the PFP&J guiding students toward peaceful and just actions and interactions and serving as a cognitive re-framing of our students’ decision-making process.

By building a common language we create a culture of accountability for students and team members to our core framework of peace and justice, and our school values of being caring, confident, competent citizens. The transparency of the school framework is mirrored by the transparency of our competency-based educational model, both of which are crucial stabilization strategies in our whole-school approach to support youth with histories of trauma, transience, and educational inconsistencies.

Many of our students are highly traumatized and live in violent communities. Our trauma-informed SEL model gives students and team members the agency to ask for help or additional resources when struggling with traumatic experiences. Students can meet with the SEL team or utilize any of our services provided through our partnerships to support their needs. They also have a voice to discuss and mediate if they feel a team member or another student was not caring or keeping our commitments to Peace and Justice. Team members can let the SEL team know that a student needs attention and we have numerous processes in place to support the student. Reflections, mediations and meetings with caregivers and student support teams all play a role in making plans to support our students’ success. Students begin to develop trusting relationships, de-escalation coping skills and hold one another accountable to our PFP&J.

Each month, we hold a community meeting with our students and team members. Each community meeting is built around learning and embracing our values.  We focus on relevant topics and experiences that are formulated by students and the team. We addressed cyber-bullying after some instances of this in the school, planned incredible team member and student performances for Black History Month, and made an “I Matter” quilt with the whole community. These meetings are integral to our students not only learning self-regulation through our SEL model but also the ability to collaborate as peers and become part of a collective support system.

Inside SEL: What type of feedback are you hearing from students (both former and current) regarding their experience at CB Community Schools?

Sara Schwartz: Students truly feel that CBCS is more than a school, it is a home. They learn trusting relationships and develop a supportive network of people who care about them and will not abandon their needs. Students often talk about how they feel safe at our school, that they can let their guard down which they often keep heightened in their communities due to violence and that they are exposed to in their communities. Many of our students who have had a history of aggression in other schools and placements say that they feel relief that they can find alternative coping skills and that their world is expanded through our community to provide more opportunities and options beyond violence. Discussing postsecondary planning from the door allows our students to begin to dream about their futures and do amazing things once they do graduate! Many of our students say that CBCS is the first school that ever believed they would graduate high school. Students feel that they can be honest when processing grief and trauma and have the space to do so at our school.

Most importantly, our students feel that they develop a voice in our community, and in the world. There is nothing more incredible for our team than knowing that our students truly feel that they matter!


For more information about C.B. Community schools, access any of the links below:

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