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Still full of life, 114-year-old Sheppard School faces its demise

By Benjamin Herold on Dec 12, 2011 01:53 PM

Text and audio production by Benjamin Herold
Photographs and slideshow production by Jessica Kourkounis
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

Isaac A. Sheppard Elementary School, now 114 years old, could be living out its final days.

A tiny K-4 elementary school at Howard and Cambria in the heart of one Philadelphia's toughest neighborhoods, Sheppard is one of nine schools slated for closure as part of the School District's facilities master plan. At a Tuesday community meeting, District officials will make made their case for closing the ancient building and reassigning its students, prompting a huge outpouring of emotion from Sheppard supporters.

The people who are closest to the school argue that Sheppard is exactly what a neighborhood school should be. Its intimate family atmosphere harkens back to a style of education that is quickly fading away, says Principal James Otto. And Sheppard is one of the few remaining institutions left helping to hold together an otherwise struggling community, says parent Stephanie Rivera.

To get a better feel for what might be lost if Sheppard is shuttered, reporter Benjamin Herold and photographer Jessica Kourkounis spent a day inside the school.  

Their multimedia slideshow, produced in partnership with WHYY's NewsWorks, is above. The text of their report follows.

It's still dark outside when Principal James Otto arrives at Sheppard Elementary School. Sheppard was built in 1897, and last month, the Philadelphia School District announced that it wants to shut the school down.

"I'm always the first person here ... so that means unlocking the door," Otto says. "I make coffee every morning for the staff."

Waking Sheppard up each morning is a team effort.  

Before the school's 292 students arrive, custodian Virgen Garcia turns on the lights, kicks on the boiler, and prods to life what appears to be some kind of giant fan belt.

Sheppard serves only kindergarten through 4th grade. It doesn't have a gym, classroom air conditioners, or a real auditorium. The School District believes the students would be served better in a bigger, more modern facility. 

Principal Otto understands the point: 

"Sheppard is less and less the definition of the modern school.  At the same time, Sheppard is what you want your kids to go to."

Principal Otto worries that the push to close Sheppard reflects a more profound loss, one that is occurring in schools all across the country. "With the pressures of No Child Left Behind … it just feels as though the joy of being a little kid … has been replaced by reaching goals."

By 8 o'clock, the sun is up, and Sheppard's small concrete schoolyard is full of children and parents from the surrounding neighborhood. Despite the threat of closing, life at Sheppard goes on. 

Teacher Carmelina Vazquez still lets her 1st graders sing funny songs when they need a break.

Michael Trautner still gets pumped up about teaching his 4th graders geography, and Marilynn Holmes is still giving spelling quizzes every Friday. Holmes has been at Sheppard for more than 35 years. She says news of the District's plan hit her hard.

"I felt so sad," she said. "I almost got depressed."

But she says she wouldn't dream of letting it affect how she relates to her students.

"I’m not going to let them see me. ... Nooo, your whole purpose is to come here and inspire them and try to get them to understand what learning is, what their job is to do in school.  And to let them have a little fun. I know it’s a test today, but that’s supposed to be a little fun, too."

Years ago, Holmes was Stephanie Rivera's 1st grade teacher. Now, Rivera has two children of her own at the school.

On this chilly December morning, Rivera is one of about 30 parents plotting a strategy to save Sheppard. Eighty-five percent of Sheppard students are Latino, and more than a quarter are English language learners. Almost all come from poor families. The kids do surprisingly well on state exams. But for their parents, Sheppard's value runs deeper than just test scores. 

One parent at the meeting, Jose Villafane, speaks up: "I mean for me, this is like a little piece of heaven in this community."

The neighborhood surrounding Sheppard - their neighborhood - is dominated by the drug trade. Things are so bad, you can watch the busy street-corner business right outside Holmes' classroom window. But Rivera says that closing the school would make them even worse.

Sheppard neighborhood"Sheppard standing here, it shows whoever wants to do wrong - wait a minute, there's a school. Wait a minute, there's a crossing guard. Wait a minute, the principal is in the schoolyard," she says.

"I think Sheppard is like the bodyguard of the community."

The School District is hosting a community meeting on the school closings plan at nearby Julia de Burgos Elementary. Sheppard parents, students, and staff are trying to organize a big turnout. Principal Otto suspects they will face an uphill battle.

"If such a thing should come to pass, we owe it to our children and our community and ourselves to go out on top, with our heads held high," Otto says.  

At the end of the day, Otto stands outside Sheppard until the last child is picked up. It seems no one wants to be the last one to leave the building. 

This story is a product of a reporting partnership on the District’s facilities master plan between PlanPhilly and the Notebook. The project is funded by a grant from the William Penn Foundation. Follow our coverage of the facilities master plan community meetings, and discuss school-specific issues in our forum.

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Comments (29)

Submitted by Jamie Roberts (not verified) on December 12, 2011 6:03 pm

Thank you for this eloquent portrait of our beloved school. Those of us who comprise the staff at Sheppard are heartbroken at the prospect of leaving our beloved community.

Mr. Herold, will you please speak to the question of capacity? During your visit last Friday, did you feel we could possibly be at 75 percent, as the Facilities Master Plan suggests?

Submitted by Benjamin Herold on December 13, 2011 1:18 pm

Thanks Jamie.

Re: capacity - unfortunately, I can't say that I got a great handle on this during my day at the school.  It's worth noting, however, that the District's facilities consultants officially calculated Sheppard's capacity at 77.33%.  Between 75% and 100% is considered "in range," or where a school should be. 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 12, 2011 7:44 pm

Oh please - there are better schools in duh area like Hunter and Burgos - send them there, watch them do better. RIP B.I.G.

Submitted by Vet Teacher (not verified) on December 12, 2011 9:00 pm

Hunter and DeBurgos students score consistently lower on tests - they're both Empowerment schools, which speaks to their failure. Sheppard is one of the few schools in the area which does not require corrective action in order to achieve.

Submitted by Christina (not verified) on December 12, 2011 10:07 pm

Further, I'd love to see the research about how many teachers who start out at Sheppard STAY in teaching and in education. Empowerment Schools are no good way to start out in this work. Walk throughs, scripts, blah blah blech. The trappings of all the Empowerment School baggage keep teachers and students down. Sheppard and other small, neighborhood schools are family schools. Bigger schools might seem like they have more from the outside, but it is what is on the inside that counts. And Sheppard has heart. And soul.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 13, 2011 11:14 am

Three years ago, The Notebook published an article featuring Sheppard as an example of a school that retained its teachers for decades. The teachers interviewed for that story are still at Sheppard, teaching their hearts out.

Submitted by Benjamin Herold on December 13, 2011 2:41 pm

 Thanks for the reminder, Anonymous.  Here's a link to the piece you mentioned.

Submitted by Sheppard Fan (not verified) on December 12, 2011 10:46 pm

Judging from your exemplary English skills you are very knowledgable about such things. Thank you for sharing.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on December 12, 2011 7:48 pm

Beautiful story. It clearly shows the intangible values of neighborhood schools--their worth to their community, and their power as a touchstone for generations of students. It is truly a shame to lose such a beacon.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 12, 2011 10:22 pm

Hey Shakespeare----It's all about money as usual.

Submitted by Sheppard Fan (not verified) on December 12, 2011 10:11 pm

Thank you for shedding a positive light on Sheppard. We hope that everyone will now see why Sheppard is so special to so many. Please keep Sheppard open and give our children a fighting chance!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 12, 2011 11:25 pm

Sheppard is a wonderful school that is loved by many, especially the children who go there. I hope the SRC will make the right choice and keep Sheppard open!

Submitted by Philadelphia taxpayer and citizen (not verified) on December 12, 2011 11:37 pm

This is the kind of place I want my tax dollars to support. I hope the SRC is listening. Please keep Sheppard open.

Submitted by SOS 60 on December 12, 2011 11:52 pm

Well done, Ben

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 12, 2011 11:27 pm

Sheppard is an amazing, unique school that makes a difference in the lives of children. It would be horrible to close such a wonderful school. I truly hope that the district looks past finances only and looks at the true meaning of educating children.

Submitted by Teacher, Too (not verified) on December 13, 2011 6:24 am

It would seem operating the physical plant at Sheppard is a real money saver: No air conditioning, no elevator, just a huge flywheel/boiler assembly that keeps students warm and the building operational. How would shutting it down save money? Closing this diamond-in-the-rough school seems like a lose-lose proposition.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 13, 2011 6:07 pm

Same case as Stanton--real community based schools, loved by everybody BUT MONEY talks and slithering types like Gamble and Evans gots da hookup. In a fair world, Sheppard and Stanton should never close but they're both done because of the political/financial set up. By the way, "set up" is an apt description here.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 13, 2011 11:01 am

my child is in da 8th grade in De Burgos and she wants 2 go back to Sheppard (not because she cant do the work..... because shes an A & Bs student) Its because the teachers are respectful to the students just the same way that Sheppard students are respectful to the teachers and others they come in contact with!!!!! SHEPPARD IS TRULY A WONDERFUL AND SPECTACULER SCHOOL. WE NEED THIS SCHOOL TO STAY OPEN!!!!!!

Submitted by Lynne (not verified) on December 13, 2011 11:34 am

I went to Sheppard from 1944 to October of 1949 (kindergarten to the beginning of 4th grade). I lived diagonally across the street from the school at Howard and Cambria with my mother, grandmother (Bubi), and aunt. We had a grocery store - and there's still a grocery store there. I can still see my Bubi, during my recess, running across the street carrying pretzels from the big can in the store folded into her white apron. Heaven forbid her granddaughter should go without a fresh snack at recess! I vividly remember my kindergarten, with the big maple blocks that we built into a pen for our rabbit. I hated taking a "nap" there on a table, head to toe with other children and, when I taught, hated making my own students take a "nap" in the same way. My teacher, Mildred Ellenwood, later became a kindergarten supervisor in Philadelphia and supervised me during part of my first year of teaching kindergarten. I learned good, solid early childhood practices from my own experiences. I remember my shock when I visited the school a few years after I'd moved away and found that they had covered the old wooden floors with vinyl tiles, and had hung fluorescent lights in all the rooms. Yet when I visited the class of a friend who was teaching at Sheppard in 2001, the school felt the same. It's too bad small neighborhood schools are being closed, considering how humane in scale they are. They serve an important community purpose. I have only wonderful memories of attending Sheppard. I could go on and on.

Submitted by Benjamin Herold on December 13, 2011 2:59 pm

Thanks for sharing your memories, Lynne.  

There was so much interesting material that we couldn't include in this one piece.  But I thought some might be interested in hearing more from the school's most senior teacher, Marilynn Holmes: 

"When I came here, I was the youngest teacher.  Now I'm the oldest teacher."

Holmes has been at Sheppard for more than 35 years. She said she came to Sheppard under interesting circumstances:

"I was assigned to this school for integration.  There were no African-Americans [on the staff.]"

She said Sheppard had a family environment even then. 

"Inside the school, it was like everybody accepted me, was friendly."

But the surrounding community, then predominantly White, was not so welcoming, she said:

"When I walked out of the school, [though], it was different. I used to walk past signs that would be in the windows of the houses."

Holmes said she has watched the neighborhood around Sheppard change dramatically:

"[There have been] a lot of changes in the way the community looks.  [In the past], you would come in the morning, and people would be out scrubbing their steps....Now, it's a lot different."



Submitted by Belinda (not verified) on December 13, 2011 3:03 pm

I attended Sheppard School from 1989-1994, and although the neighborhood was awful, some of my fondest childhood memories took place at Sheppard. My teachers there were amazing, and caring individuals. Ms. Holmes had a dance class after school and I looked forward to it every week. It was my teachers at Sheppard who first noticed potential in me and had me tested for the gifted support program, and helped me to go to J.R. Masterman and eventually become a productive member of society. I believe Sheppard School to be a true diamond in the rough. Elementary School truly is the foundation for what kind of person you will be, and I think I am a better person for having attended Sheppard. To close this school will be one of the biggest mistakes the School District could possibly make.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 13, 2011 6:54 pm

By the way, I know Jim Otto personally and nobody is a better, more well rounded, sincere, dedicated person than he. Lots of folks have always been jealous of Jim because of the ease with which he operates but ask the staff and you can't find anybody with a bad word about him--not just at Sheppard but everywhere he's been in 20 some years. Jim Otto is what is known as a class act who will fight for the kids as well as the adults.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 13, 2011 8:09 pm


Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on December 14, 2011 5:40 am

I am not entirely familiar with the physical distance that students would have to go, but as Sheppard's team (principal and teachers) have a proven track record, why not make one of the receiving schools a K-4 and retain Sheppard's staff as a unit? The other receiving school could then be made into a middle school, 5-8?

This article is a fine portrait. I would hope that more of our decision makers in City Hall would "connect the dots" and show more motivation than they have so far to bring better real economic growth to the City so that aging facilities like Sheppard could be maintained and even upgraded.

Submitted by Elizabeth Schultz (not verified) on December 16, 2011 8:51 pm

"this is like a little piece of heaven in this community"

My suggestion to the community is "Do Not Stop Fighting - no matter what!"
Seek alternatives, hold public meetings and preserve what you find of value!
For help or suggestions, turn to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Turn to fellow advocates. Do not relent - even if it means parents from your community have to run for public office, as I just did on November 8th and won in the aftermath of exactly the same effort by our Fairfax County School Board to shutter a nearly 100 year legacy in our semi-rural school, Clifton Elementary School in Fairfax, VA - the 11th largest School District in the United States!
Community schools define and anchor communities, lead to increased parental involvement, stabilize communities and property values and more.
If Sheppard School is as valuable to the neighborhood as this article conveys, fight for it. It is your past, your future - and 'a present' you don't want to lose!
In solidarity,
Elizabeth Schultz
Fairfax County School Board-Elect
Springfield District

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 18, 2011 11:27 pm

What a sad commentary on our society, that a school that is such a haven for the children has to shut down. It seems that everyone there has such dedication and pride in the school. Is It too late or can something be done ?
A former Philadelphian

Submitted by janice irons ritt (not verified) on February 19, 2012 3:07 pm

I was a student at this school long ago. The school went from K to 6 at that time. though it was a small school even then , the teachers were the best. The students received the polio vaccine in the basement, it was quite an event. I learned about the real Smokey the Bear. my sixth grade teacher' patiently helped pass my swimming test, even though I was terrified of water. Apparently. the people who should know better do not. why does everything have to be destroyed just because it is not shiny and slick? Fix it, so it serves the community again. I read the comments , it seems the community does want the school so, FIX IT'.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 20, 2012 6:07 pm

i don't know how you could do this to these children and the community... these children are use to the teachers that they have grown up with... these teachers know there students... why would you close a school that is comfortable and you don't hear about drama... it works for the community why are you trying to ruin it by making these kids attend other schools where they have to start all over to get to know everyone... you people need to get it together... you people are part of the reason this city is turning from sugar to shit...

Submitted by gabriela (not verified) on June 4, 2014 6:58 am
This is so sad. How cold hearted to you have to be to close down a place with so much history? I think they should do whatever is needed to keep this school open. faceti asigurari

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