Team effort sends Penn Charter senior to college — a family first

On a routine ride home from basketball practice, Demetrius Isaac’s dream came true.

As his mother tooled towards South Philadelphia, she quietly told her oldest son about a pair of calls she’d received that day.

One was from Chestnut Hill College. The other was from Albright College. Both offered the high school senior a spot on campus.

“We smiled and laughed,” said Isaac, a student at the William Penn Charter School. “It felt good. It felt real good.”

Once inside the family’s 22nd Street row home, two thick envelopes — indisputable proof — were waiting. So too were Isaac’s father and younger brother, beaming with pride.

Isaac shook his father’s hand, hugged his brother and breathed a sigh of relief.

“It was a big weight off my shoulders,” he said.

Isaac will be the first in his family to go to college. It’s a goal the family has worked on together since the 17-year-old’s kindergarten days.

A family plan

Ronald and Elizabeth Isaac, Demetrius’ parents, never had the chance to go to college. They decided early on that, no matter what, their kids would.

“There’s no option for them,” said Ronald inside the family’s tidy, white-tiled living room. “When we came out [of school], you could get a decent job. So the next level has to be, ‘you graduate from college.'”

Enrolling Demetrius at a private school was a big part of the plan.

Ronald and Elizabeth wanted their son to be at a school with strong academics and a top-notch learning environment. They didn’t want metal detectors or school police to be necessity.

“You’re already in the mindset of defending oneself and when your defenses are up you can’t learn,” said Ronald.

Daily sacrifices 

Demetrius started at Penn Charter in East Falls, one of the best in the city, in the sixth grade after being awarded a partial scholarship. He knew he wanted to attend almost immediately.

“I remember taking a visit and it looked like one of those schools that you see on TV — all the kids were happy. It was definitely somewhere I wanted to be,” he said.

Demetrius’ parents have made a series of simple, everyday sacrifices to round out Penn Charter’s substantial tuition bills. High-school tuition is just north of $30,000 a year.

Ronald, who works customer service for a major airline, puts in overtime hours from time to time. The family doesn’t have cable, eat out often, or take multiple vacations.

Tax rebates have also been used to help pay for Demetrius’ education.

For Ronald and Elizabeth, it was their duty to get their son to this point, to make college a tangible goal. And they’ll do the same for Darius, Demetrius’ 10-year-old brother.

“This is your job as a parent,” said Ronald. “You do what you’re supposed to do.”

A team effort

Demetrius was on board from Day One. Transitioning to Penn Charter was a bit nerve-wracking at first, but he soon acclimated and has flourished both academically and athletically.

That’s not to say his parents didn’t have to prod him every now and again. Elizabeth chuckled as she recalled Demetrius’ early years at Penn Charter when there were at least a couple hurdles he had to work through.

“I was constantly on my boy’s back about this and about that, but he understood why,” she said.

“I knew I was a pain in the butt, but I had to be.”

For Demetrius, thinking about the rough streets outside of his door made those motherly pushes much easier to take.

“Everyone in South Philly talks about getting out of the hood. I’m no different when it comes to that,” said Demetrius.

“I don’t want to be the person that’s on the corner selling drugs that could have been something, but it turned out they weren’t. I want to be the who actually makes it and is actually successful in life.”

By early spring, Demetrius will decide where he’ll study next fall. He’d like to get a degree in engineering, maybe business.

For now, though, he’s got his eyes on a state basketball championship. It’d be the cherry on top of an already special school year.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.