This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
According to the most recent longitudinal study of Philadelphia graduation rates, just 10 percent of students who begin 9th grade in Philadelphia public schools manage to persist all the way through to college graduation.
To raise achievement levels, the city and state have restructured public education in Philadelphia over the last 15 years, rapidly expanding both District and charter options – with mixed results.
While the School District continues to grapple with systemic, recurring and devastating funding shortfalls, students and parents find themselves desperately hoping that schools will be able at least to retain last year’s admittedly insufficient levels of staff and resources.
In the face of these shortcomings – with faculty and school support-staff levels at dreadful lows – students must rely more than ever on their relationships with family members and other adults outside the school system.
This is the story of the power of one such relationship.
At first glance, Delialah Burns and Madeline Sherry seem like they’d have absolutely nothing in common.
Burns, 25, grew up in subsidized housing in Kensington and now lives in an apartment in Lawncrest. During the week, she works a day shift in Center City as an administrative assistant and takes night classes at Temple University toward her bachelor’s degree.
Work ends at 5 p.m. Classes start at 5:30.
The fluorescent glow of a Broad Street subway car is the closest she gets to an office of her own.
"I go to work, to school and study on the ‘sub,’ do my homework on the ‘sub,’ said Burns, whose brown eyes are determined. She wore a business-professional blazer. "Whenever I’m free and I’m sitting somewhere, I do whatever I have to do."
Sherry, 61, who casts a stately silhouette, owns a luxuriously handsome condo on Rittenhouse Square. From her high-rise window, South Philadelphia stretches below in a maze of intersecting lines that bustle with city life.
She grew up on the Main Line and has risen through the ranks in her family’s chosen profession.
"I’m an attorney. I come from a family of attorneys. I’m married to an attorney. My oldest son is an attorney. I have two brothers who are attorneys, a sister who’s an attorney," said Sherry, "and the list goes on."
But despite their apparent differences, Burns and Sherry have been integral parts of each other’s lives for close to a decade, thanks to the Philadelphia Futures mentorship program that brought them together, a program that requires a five-year commitment at minimum.
"This is not mentoring-lite. This is real mentoring," said Sherry, who also sits on Philadelphia Futures’ board of directors. "This is mentoring that means that there’s a communication with the student at least once a week and then an in-person meeting at least once a month."
For Burns, who was attending Edison High School in North Philadelphia when the two first met, Sherry arrived in her life at a time when she had almost no one else to turn to.
"At one point, before I had met Madeline, I didn’t have anyone to talk to, so I was always in my head and just was to myself," Burns said.
Burns was raised in a single-parent household with her two younger sisters. She says her mother – who had her when she was 18 – instilled in her the importance of education and tried to awaken her to a life beyond Lehigh Avenue.
"Where I’m from, and people in my neighborhood, 25, if you’re not pregnant, that’s old," Burns said. "But she didn’t want me to go that route. She wanted me to finish school. She wanted me to live my life before I thought about settling down."
But despite making her best efforts, Burn’s mother couldn’t be the model that Burns says she needed.
"It was nothing for me to go off of," she said. "She couldn’t say, ‘Hey, I can help you out with this because I’ve been through this.’"
Burns says her childhood was a formative experience for her mother as much as it was for herself.
"Having three kids at a young age is hard when you’re still trying to figure out who you are," said Burns of her mom. "She was still a child and I was a baby, but we were both growing together, and so we learned from each other pretty much."
At Edison, Burns was shy as a classmate, but eager and attentive as a student. After classes, she’d stay in the building until early evening – forging bonds with the teachers who stayed late to grade papers and prepare for the next day’s work.
As high school progressed, the cracks in Burns’ family life became more strained and she increasingly found herself taking care of her younger siblings.
School, though, remained a priority.
By the time she was a senior, she was a strong candidate for college – setting her on a track to redefine her family and defy her neighborhood’s culture of low expectations.
But just as Burns felt her ascent gathering momentum, the unthinkable happened.