This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Kevin McCorry for NewsWorks
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 that something had to change, so the parents made this promise to their daughter: After the 2012-13 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.
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 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 bubbles in the corner.
The parents are separated, but they say they remain "best friends" for the sake of the kids. Tatiana, the oldest, lives with her father 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.