How one Philly family fought to find the right school

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    Tatiana Berrios was slipping.

    The 15-year-old had been in Frankford High School only for a few months and already she was charting a course for mediocrity.

    Last spring, the honor-roll student started skipping school, cutting classes, leaving assignments undone.


    “Just focus,” her father, Orlando, pleaded. “Stay in there; don’t get caught up in the crowds.”

    But the environment at Frankford overwhelmed Tatiana, made her feel small, powerless, in a land where being brainy earns you mostly mockery from your peers.

    To her, the school’s noisy halls bristled with bullies and drug users. The “good” teachers who “cared” were outnumbered, she felt, by the ones who spent class time checking their phones or telling “life stories.”

    She waited with frustration for signs that students who behaved badly would be punished.

    As time passed the idea of trying began to feel useless. She says she wasn’t alone in her desperation.

    “I saw smart kids that were just amazing, like they had special talents, ” Tatiana said, “and they were falling apart in Frankford.”

    Even as she acted out, Tatiana still got A’s, which discouraged her even more. It was too easy.

    Her mother, Marisol, watched helplessly as Tatiana sank.

    “Her whole personality changed,” Marisol said. “She went from this bubbly, outgoing person to a person who just wanted to be in her room and not wanting to come out and deal with the world.”

    Orlando and Marisol knew something had to change, so the parents made to their daughter this promise:
 After the 2012-2013 school year, Tatiana would never again set foot in Frankford High School.

    This year, she is in a new school. The story of how Tatiana ended up there began many years ago with two teenagers from Olney High who fell very much in love.

    Dreams

    Tatiana Berrios sits at the dining room table at her mother’s rowhome, near where the El trains rumble and screech as they pull into Erie-Torresdale station. Her curly black hair falls onto her light-brown shoulders. She wears a colorful T-shirt bearing an image of a smiling face, one nearly as warm as Tatiana’s own.

    Orlando and Marisol, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, join their daughter at the table. A close-up of Michelangelo’s rendering of God’s outstretched hand to Adam hangs on the wall. A fish tank garbles in the corner.

    Although the parents are separated, they say they remain “best friends” for the sake of the kids. Tatiana, the oldest, lives with her father Orlando in Hunting Park.

    “I grew up on a ‘D-block,'” she says. “Everybody calls it a ‘D-block’ because that’s where drug dealers go. So, you know, kinda rough.”

    Tatiana’s sisters, Natasha, 12, and Amilyia, 4, live with their mother near the El in Harrowgate.

    Together, the Berrios family is like many in Philadelphia – of modest means, but with the will to do whatever it takes to navigate the complexities of life as a two-house family.

    The parents work hard to provide their children with safety and stability. The children are expected to live up to their parents’ high expectations – each child saddled with maintaining the path for the next sibling.

    If the alchemy works, the jobs of this generation will transform into the careers of the next. 

    “My parents do tell me everyday to set a good example,” said Tatiana. “And they always tell me that they don’t want my life to be their life.”

    At his daughter’s remark, a smile lights her father’s face.

    “When I say something like that, it’s not that I don’t want you doing what I do,” he says. “It’s that I want you doing something that you like to do.”

    Father and daughter talk easily – with a trust built up over time. Orlando leans in to make his point. He has young, but well-worn features, a short dark crop of hair, the build of a second baseman.

    
”I’m not saying that I don’t like what I do, but it’s a job, you know? As parents, we want better,” he said. “We want you to have more than we have.”

    Since age 5, Tatiana’s dream has been to become a doctor.

    “I’m still debating if I want to be a pediatrician, or a geneticist,” the 15-year-old said. “I used to want to do surgical until I noticed what’s inside of stuff, then I was like, ‘There’s too much blood.’ I’m not a big fan of blood anymore.”

    But dreams, the parents know, can wither away all too easily.  So in the Berrios family, distractions and pitfalls are not welcome.

    “I’m not allowed to date until I’m 30,” Tatiana says, provoking belly-laughs from Orlando and Marisol. “My dad used to say 40, but he lowered it like 10 years, so 30.”

    Boys, be gone. Underperforming schools get out of the way. Orlando and Marisol will not allow circumstance to dictate their daughter’s future.

    When Tatiana was struggling at Frankford, the parents joke that they were “living” at the school, peppering teachers with questions.

    Tatiana accepts the attentive role that her parents play. She’s been charged with altering the family’s narrative, scribing her own chapter where the plot points of the past are simultaneously avoided and vindicated.


    To do so, she knows she needs all the help she can get.

    Children, alone

    Tatiana has heard the story a million times.

    It’s in her bones, her DNA. When she needs motivation or forewarning, there the story rests in her mind like the dog-eared page of a bedside paperback.

    Her parents met as kids at Olney High School. Orlando would walk Marisol home after classes, the pair laughing in the afternoon sunlight of Hunting Park. One day, Orlando mustered the courage to ask Marisol on a date.

    She agreed.

    The couple fell in love fast – hanging out at Bustleton and Cottman, going bowling, seeing movies, and playing arcade games. Marisol graduated from Olney in the spring of 1997. Orlando still had one year to complete.

    Marisol, with dreams of studying psychology, was accepted to Penn State University main campus. An essay she wrote helped make the tuition “almost free.”

    Marisol’s mother had been planning to move back to Puerto Rico by year’s end, so Marisol decided to forgo moving to University Park until January.

    Orlando began his senior year at Olney. Marisol had a part-time job at a pharmacy. Then came the November day that changed their lives forever.

    The test was positive. Inside Marisol, new life had begun to form.

    The next few weeks were a blur. Marisol’s mother moved forward with her plan to return to Puerto Rico. “You made your bed; now you’re going to have to lie in it,” Marisol’s mother told her.

    Soon after, Orlando’s mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. His father had long been “M.I.A.” The expectant parents were overwhelmed and alone. “We had nobody,” Marisol said.

    Stress mounted. Marisol abandoned her plans to attend Penn State. Orlando, blindsided by grief and anxiety, dropped out of Olney so he could work full time.

    Marisol enrolled at the Community College of Philadelphia. Orlando would walk her through Hunting Park to the bus stop, and pick her up again after classes. Then he’d work nights stocking shelves so they could afford to pay the monthly mortgage payment on what had been his mother’s house.

    The pregnant student and the high school dropout: It was far from the life the couple had once imagined for themselves.

    A fire within Orlando, though, soon set itself ablaze. As Marisol’s belly grew, Orlando’s heart ignited with the primal realization of his role as provider. The life he’d created would soon be his to care for, to nourish, to love and protect. The status quo could not continue.

    An example had to be set.

    In April of 1998, Orlando re-enrolled in Olney High School’s “twilight program” where he attended classes day and night as a way to get back on the track to graduation.

    On July 28 of that year, Marisol, age 19, and Orlando, age 18, became parents to a baby girl. They named her Tatiana.

    The baby changed Orlando and Marisol in the ways they couldn’t have anticipated. Tatiana became their light, they say, made them better people.

    Everything was new.

    Over the next few years, the new parents struggled to build stable lives, trading sacrifices: Marisol suspended her coursework at CCP to work two jobs. Orlando, with infant Tatiana in tow, attended classes at Olney High School — the Philadelphia School District accommodating the new father’s education by providing on-site babysitting services.

    Upon graduation, Orlando returned the favor to Marisol, working two jobs while she re-enrolled in CCP.

    Eventually, after years of grinding shift-work, Orlando landed a job at a third-party insurance benefits firm, and Marisol became a recruiter of bilingual customer-service representatives.

    “Things were difficult, but we made it through,” Marisol said. “We had each other to rely on. It was something we had to do. We already had a baby. There was no going back.”

    Chronicles

    Sixteen years, two more children and a separation later, Orlando and Marisol’s baby girl has grown into a smart, beautiful teenager whom they regard with a kind of awe.

    As their family moved around the city – as so many do – Tatiana attended many schools, excelled at all. The school district’s elementary and middle school options worked for her through seventh grade.

    Following Tatiana’s seventh grade year–with Orlando and Marisol separated–Marisol moved with her daughters to Tampa, Fla. There, Tatiana attended a rigorous college-prep high school where she felt challenged and did well.

    But Marsiol soon moved back to Philly.

    As a mid-year transfer, Tatiana got wait listed by that sought-after place, Central High, and couldn’t land a spot at a charter school. Tatiana had no choice but to enroll in Frankford.

    Like all of the city’s comprehensive neighborhood high schools, Frankford must accept all students under the age of 18 at all times of the school year. No matter a student’s academic proficiency or disability, the district’s neighborhood high schools exist to serve all.

    But for Tatiana, Frankford spawned the downward spiral that threatened everything that Orlando and Marisol had dedicated their lives to.

    Debate club

    Whether Frankford is really as “terrible” a school as Tatiana claims is, of course, a matter of perspective and debate. One of Tatiana’s favorite teachers from her time at Frankford, Adam Anderson, argues that comprehensive neighborhood schools get a bad rap.

    “You hear, ‘No one wants to go to their neighborhood school,”” said Anderson, “”They’re all bad. They don’t offer anything. It’s basically your last chance at high school. That’s where you go if you screwed up,’ but most times it’s not that case.”

    Anderson is a fifth-year math teacher who was relocated to Warren G. Harding Middle School this year as part of the district’s most recent round of staff downsizing.

    Anderson sees Frankford in a very different light than Tatiana. He says he had “phenomenal” co-workers who “busted their butts every day” and a “great” administration that did whatever it could “to make Frankford the best it possibly could be.”

    The school, he says, has “a ton to offer students.”

    Although Anderson wrote Tatiana recommendations for her applications to other schools, he told her that he “hated to see her go.”

    Frankford High School Principal Reginald Fisher defended the school. Under his tenure, which began in 2009, he says suspension rates are down, attendance is up, and the school has come off the state’s persistently dangerous list.

    “The reality is that a neighborhood high school reflects the community that it serves, and so all the challenges that exist in the neighborhood, can become part of the life of a school,” said Fisher. “And so what we have to try to do on a daily basis is provide the social and emotional support that students need in order to achieve academically.”

    Fisher did not disagree with his former student that some Frankford faculty members could do better.

    “Unfortunately there’s teachers that are in the system…and perhaps they’ve not been given the necessary feedback to improve their instruction,” the principal said. “At Frankford I try to spend a lot of time identifying who those teachers are and coaching them and working with them around their performance.”

    Equity

    Debate also surrounds the how and why of the learning environment at Frankford.

    Traditional public education advocates argue that Philadelphia schools have long been underfunded and set up for failure. Resources, they say, aren’t tied to a realistic picture of the costs of educating the children the schools serve.

    As more special-admittance district-run magnet schools and charter schools (which, of course, are also public schools) have been created, they’ve sapped resources from neighborhood schools while enrolling many of the city’s more motivated and arguably easier-to-educate students.

    As a result, neighborhood schools such as Frankford have been tasked with serving a higher percentage of students typically thought to be more difficult to educate – those in poverty, with disability, and/or with a less stable family infrastructure.

    Advocates for education reform argue that teachers’ union contracts too often allow under-performing teachers to keep their jobs while dissuading “great leadership” from taking positions at the most difficult schools.

    In the past five years, according to data from the Philadelphia school district, enrollment in district-run schools has dipped by 29,348 students, while enrollment in the city’s 86 bricks-and-mortar charter schools has risen by 23,341 students. More than 5,000 Philadelphia students attend the state’s cyber charters.

    “Every student added to charter school enrollment quite literally snatches resources and opportunities from students in district schools,” said Education Law Center staff attorney David Lapp, “decimating our neighborhood public schools and making them less of a viable option for families.” 

    Some students enrolled in private and religious schools have taken advantage of the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit and the newly created Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit. These programs allow companies to claim tax subsidies if they provide money to nonprofit organizations that give scholarships to private and religious school students.

    Public education advocates point out that these tax subsidies reduce overall state revenues and thus cut into the amount of money that the state can spend on budget line-items such as public education.

    The state could not say how many Philadelphia students take advantage of these programs.

    To Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, the question is this:

    “Has this diversity of options caused atrophy at the neighborhood high schools in a way that’s reinforcing negative behaviors among students and teachers?”

    The difference

    Such policy debates didn’t figure into the Berrios family’s calculus as it fretted over how to stop Tatiana’s slide into near-depression.

    As do many Philadelphia families weighing school options, Orlando and Marisol operated out of pragmatism and preservation: If school X isn’t providing your child the best opportunity to succeed, seek the one that will.

    To them, distinctions among “traditional public,” “charter” and “private” matter little.

    (For some families, though, traditional public school options are highly coveted.)

    After what Orlando described as “lots of calls, emails and research, ” the family concluded the best school for Tatiana was Cristo Rey, an independent Catholic school that aims to provide a college-preparatory private education to students who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

    Tuition at Cristo Rey, in the city’s Logan neighborhood, is mostly subsidized by private philanthropy. Area businesses cover 60 percent of the school’s $12,000-per-pupil cost in exchange for students working at their offices one day per week.

    Most of the rest of the tuition money comes from private scholarships donated by companies utilizing EITC and OSTC tax subsidies.

    Depending on income, families chip in between $20 and $200 per month. In order to attend the school, a family of four must earn no more than $58,376. On average, a family of four with a child at Cristo Rey earns about $29,000.

    Philadelphia’s Cristo Rey is one of 26 such schools across the country. Together, the network boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate.

    To ensure these results, Cristo Rey asks much of its non-unionized faculty, including a contracted workday that begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 5:30 p.m. Also, if students don’t perform to the school’s standards, they can be compelled to leave.

    While this model could never accommodate every child in Philadelphia, for Tatiana Berrios, it’s made all the difference.

    In late November, Tatiana gushed about the program.

    Although she says the academic rigor of Cristo Rey is “harder than what I imagined,” she says she “love[s]” the school. “All the kids are participating, doing work,” Tatiana said. “Teachers seem like they really care.”

    The medical-field hopeful especially values the opportunity to work at health-insurance giant Independence Blue Cross. “I love my job, love it so much.”

    Dreams, revisited

    Orlando and Marisol can’t believe the difference a year makes. Tatiana is Tatiana again.

    “I see her actually maturing. I see her involved in many ways…choosing better friends,” said Marisol. “She doesn’t miss a day of work. She says that’s something she doesn’t ever want to do.”

    At this point the Berrioses have also taken their middle daughter, Natasha, out of district-run schools. They’ve placed the sixth-grader in Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter, where they hope she’ll continue through high school.

    Amilyia, their 4-year-old, attends a pre-K “bright futures” program at the district-run Alexander McClure, which Orlando and Marisol praise. Tentatively they plan to let Amilyia finish elementary school there and then relocate her to Mariana Bracetti for middle school.

    Meanwhile, it remains on Tatiana’s young shoulders to earn the freedom to do not what she must, but what she wants.

    One day, she hopes, the name Berrios will find itself following the word doctor.

    On the way to that goal, Orlando teases his daughter that she’ll just have to endure his undying focus and devotion.

    “We have our little inside jokes, like what is it?” he asked Tatiana. “‘Don’t get mad at your dad because he had dreams too.'”

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