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An outpouring of emotion for Sheppard

By Benjamin Herold on Dec 14, 2011 02:17 PM
Photo: Benjamin Herold

Third grader Julio Pedraza was one of about 150 supporters of Sheppard Elementary in Kensington who implored District officials not to close the school.

by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

The tears fell freely at Julia de Burgos Elementary School Tuesday night.

During the fifth of 17 community meetings on the School District of Philadelphia’s facilities master plan, a flood of over 150 supporters of Sheppard Elementary implored District officials to reconsider their recommendation to close the tiny K-4 school in Kensington. Located just a few blocks away from de Burgos, Sheppard is one of nine schools the District has targeted for closure by 2014.

During an hour of emotional public testimony, tearful parents spoke about having attended Sheppard themselves. Teachers showed a video extolling Sheppard’s strong academic performance and intimate family atmosphere. And representatives from some of Sheppard’s numerous outside partners spoke out about finding “magic” inside the 114-year-old school in one of Philadelphia’s toughest neighborhoods.

But it was a current Sheppard student, 3rd-grader Mishell Osorio, who summed it all up.

“If you close Sheppard, you will break my heart,” Osorio told School Reform Commission Chair Pedro Ramos, Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery, and District Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd.

Video courtesy Sheppard Elementary School
Supporters of Sheppard Elementary screened this video during a December 13 community meeting on the District's facilities master plan.

Floyd, who has been running the District’s facilities plan, was clearly moved by the outpouring of emotion, struggling to fight back tears at several points during the evening. The turnout from Sheppard surpassed anything she had yet experienced during the facilities process, she said.

“When it comes down to an individual school, an individual teacher, an individual child, it’s hard,” Floyd said after the meeting. 

“There’s a sense of gratitude, because you see people who see believe in public schools and [who] come out and share that and push us to think about things differently.”

Before the public testimony began, Floyd presented the District’s case for closing Sheppard as part of a package of facilities changes in the North Central section of the city. The proposed closure of Sheridan West school and proposed grade changes at McClure and Cramp Elementary schools and the Promise Academy at Clemente Middle School were also discussed Tuesday night.

But almost all of the focus was on Sheppard.

“The building is very old and does lack a lot of the modern day ancillary and classroom spaces that we look for,” Floyd said.

An accompanying handout said the school does not have a gymnasium, library, auditorium, or cafeteria. In addition, Floyd said that Sheppard has experienced an enrollment decline over the past 10 years, from 446 students in 2000-01 to now just 283 students, although part of the drop was the result of intentional boundary changes during that period.

If Sheppard is indeed closed, students would be relocated to either de Burgos or Hunter Elementary Schools, both of which are in newer buildings opened within the past 10 years.

Speaker after speaker, however, argued that the people at Sheppard are what make the school worth saving.

“I see this room filled with generations of Sheppard students,” said Susan Sanchez, a Sheppard alum and the mother of a current Sheppard 3rd-grader.

“I don’t want to see our children being pulled from a community pond and being thrown into an ocean.”

Dan Thompson, an assistant professor at Penn State-Altoona who helped coordinate the university’s student intern program at Sheppard for three years, said it took him awhile to understand what makes the school a “magical place.”

“It’s an outstanding leader, teachers who work hard with the kids, and a focus on academics all the time,” said Thompson. 

“It seems to me that this is the kind of place you’d want to reward, not punish.”

District and SRC officials both stressed that they would take the feedback seriously and that no final decision on Sheppard has been made.

After the meeting, Floyd said that the speakers’ emphasis on the value of Sheppard’s small size, its many outside partnerships, and its “incredible sense of tradition” had made an impact on her.

“I expected a turnout, but I didn’t expect a video and the generations of Sheppard alumni who showed up and to share what they believe makes the school special,” Floyd said.

SRC Chair Ramos, an attorney who grew up in the surrounding community, told the crowd that he attended nearby Hunter Elementary and has watched Sheppard’s transformation over the years.

“For such an old building, it’s really amazing how good you’ve all taken care of it, and how well it’s taken care of our children,” Ramos said. 

“We respect that. This is just a very heart-wrenching, hard process. We’re going to try to do our best.”

The next community meeting on the facilities master plan is December 15 at 6 p.m. at Strawberry Mansion High School.  

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 FoundationFollow our coverage of the facilities master plan community meetings, and discuss school-specific issues in our forum.

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Comments (35)

Submitted by retired North Phila. teacher (not verified) on December 14, 2011 2:56 pm

Sheppard shows us what public education can be, even now. Thank you, Sheppard. Thank you, School Reform Commission people and School District people, for listening -- with minds and with hearts.

Submitted by SOS PJ on December 14, 2011 2:55 pm

Amazing. Really wonderful to see such a great turnout. The district has to, simply must, support schools that are working.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2011 6:26 pm

Surely you jest. It's all about money and Sheppard is done UNLESS the political forces are under attack which, of course, they should be.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on December 14, 2011 3:19 pm

How far is Hunter from de Burgos? Could the SD possibly convert de Burgos to a K-4, and Hunter to a 5-8, and transfer the winning leadership at Sheppard to de Burgos?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2011 3:50 pm

The reason the district wants to move Sheppard students to DeBurgos is that they overbuilt DeBurgos, so it's unlikely they'd be willing to do this. A better idea than closing Sheppard, though.

And, honestly, there's something special about going to school in a building with classic stonework and quality craftsmanship not seen in modern constructs.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on December 14, 2011 3:35 pm

So even with K-4 students from Hunter and de Burgos and Sheppard, de Burgos would not be at 75%?

I DO understand about the magic of old buildings. Final question: If the building at Sheppard is good, and the academics good, what was the reason that kids were not transferred from Hunter, which is an empowerment school, to Sheppard? Does Hunter also have too many "unused seats"?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2011 3:02 pm

Sorry, didn't realize you were factoring in Hunter. You ask good questions.

From what we've heard, Sheppard is at 77 percent, but the other two schools are not.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on December 14, 2011 6:28 pm

Honestly I think Sheppard has a very good chance of being allowed to stay open as they are, what with being at 77 percent, the good academics and good state of the building, and not least, the strong outpouring of support. As affirmation of the soundness of the building, it is written in the preliminary report, "possible re-use for pre-K".

I would think that with the proposed cuts to Athletics and Instrumental Music that having a gym and auditorium really shouldn't factor as heavily? But of course the SD seems to like to say things like, "increase enrollment in successful schools..." without understanding what they are saying.

If Sheppard is granted a "stay", I would advise the school's supporters to try and get outside help, maybe establish a trust fund of some kind to help pay for future maintenance needs - take away one of the reasons for closure. It sounds well worth preserving.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2011 3:23 pm

Sheppard actually does have an auditorium/multipurpose room that doubles as a gym. It just doesn't have bolted-down chairs.

And the district itself has given the condition of the building its highest rating.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 15, 2011 10:40 pm

YES, but now, they want the property. Gee, I wonder why?? I bet money has everything to do with it.

Submitted by Vet Teacher (not verified) on December 14, 2011 6:21 pm

“When it comes down to an individual school, an individual teacher, an individual child, it’s hard,” Floyd said after the meeting. >

It always come down to individuals. When you forget that, you lose a piece of your soul. The students, parents and staff at Sheppard embody this concept with great love, dignity and spirit.

Submitted by Jovanna (not verified) on December 14, 2011 7:28 pm

I been at SHEPPARD SCHOOL for 5 years and I think it's just not right to close SHEPPARD and I am very sad please I beg you don't close SHEPPARD it was my education it's my sisters education and I want it to be the education of my 2 year old brother let the kids choose I never thought I liked SHEPPARD but now that someone might close it I CRY
because I had wonderful teachers, and years there and all though I'm out of SHEPPARD I want it to be somebody else school in the future so please don't close SHEPPARD. I LOVE YOU SHEPPARD SCHOOL <3

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2011 9:23 pm

Great job Sheppard!!! It would be a crime to close you now!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2011 9:23 pm

Sheppard is love! love is what makes the children of philadelphia thrive! Don't take that away from them!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2011 10:17 pm

I sincerely hope the SRC listens to Sheppard students, parents and staff, and actually makes an intelligent decision. Part of the magic of Sheppard (in addition to all the other wonderful things mentioned in the video and article) is that it's still a small, K-4 school. Just because Paul Vallas thought he could eliminate the problems of middle schools by renaming them "elementary" schools and throwing hundreds of older kids in with hundreds of younger ones, we now have a district with very few schools completely dedicated to primary education. Two superintendents later, we're still suffering from his bad judgment.

I've taught at both Sheppard and deBurgos, and there's no comparison. Sure, it looks good on paper to have central A/C, Promethean boards, a full-service cafeteria, large auditorium & library (not to mention a faculty room that doesn't also serve as the boiler room), but what good is an auditorium when the seats are so high, they fold up and swallow the average primary school student? What good is a library without a certified librarian to teach the children research skills? Who will ensure the students' safe passage as they make the long trek from Sheppard to deBurgos or Hunter, through drug-infested neighborhoods and across busy streets?

They've been talking about closing Sheppard for at least 10 years. It would be tragic if the governor's shortsightedness and district mismanagement put an end to a school that has been a jewel in the community (ironically, nestled between Hope and Waterloo Streets) for over 100 years.

To Sheppard students, staff and families, my advice is to pray for the best and prepare for the worst. I wish you better success than my school had when we tried to save it.

Submitted by Another Sheppard Supporter (not verified) on December 15, 2011 6:14 am

Well stated! Thank you.

Submitted by Another Sheppard Supporter (not verified) on December 15, 2011 6:28 am

Well stated! Thank you.

Submitted by K. R. Luebbert (not verified) on December 15, 2011 9:23 am

Sheppard sounds wonderful, And I hope that the SRC listens to its family and keeps it open. However, let's not denigrate the K-8 concept across the board. I teach grade 8 at a K-8 school, and we deeply value the fact that we have known and worked with our kids for years. Parents also value the family we have here. K-4 might be needed in some places, and K-8 should never be forced on a school community that is not ready for it. But longtime K-8 schools work very well and are deeply loved by their communities for the consistency they bring to the lives of their students.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 15, 2011 12:44 pm

The grade configuration is really irrelevant. It's the culture of the individual school - as defined by the principal, his staff and the community - that is most important.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 15, 2011 10:35 pm

If Sheppard is in Dwight Evans' plan, it's going to Dwight, make no mistake about it. Nothing has changed from Ackermania. As long as Nunnery and his ilk are in charge, the kids' needs will count for nothing. It will continue to be about the hook up which is code for MONEY.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 15, 2011 9:25 pm

I also know Jim Otto and I agree--he is a class act. Nobody works harder to foster a good relationship with the kids and staff. He's a throwback to times when honesty and respect counted much more than now. Jim will do what's RIGHT and fight against the negativity 24/7. He'll fight for his people which is VERY unusual today in the School District. I worked at one of the ABLE Academies years ago and I always knew Jim Otto had our collective backs and placed the kids' real interests first.

Submitted by Sheppard Teacher (not verified) on December 16, 2011 7:35 am

This is 100 percent true. Mr. Otto cares for what's right - for kids and for his staff. He received a very well-deserved standing ovation at the community meeting.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 16, 2011 9:58 am

Jealousy takes many forms and Jim Otto has been a target for people who resent him for lots of reasons, especially the easy going, non confrontational approach he has with his people. The M.O. today is to threaten and disrespect as often as possible with no regard to dignity, professionalism and general decency. Jim Otto does not play that game but gets the job done far, far better than most of his peers, thus the inherent jealousy.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 16, 2011 11:31 am

I do not know Jim Otto well, but what is said about him is what the research points to as "effective leadership."

The "management by threat and intimidation" is the worst form of leadership, and in fact, it is not leadership at all. It is poor management.

I give Jim Otto high props for having the courage and decency to stand behind what he believes in as a leader and as a decent human being. He models the way.

The type of leader Jim exemplifies is the type of leader we need more of in our district. Leadership is about the relationships leaders build and the positive chemistry he or she develops with those he or she leads.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 16, 2011 11:07 am

Jim Otto is the best of the best but because of some obvious differences from several counterparts, he has been made a target of many. They need to watch and learn, not scorn his effectiveness.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 16, 2011 5:57 am

This is the same thing they did 10 years ago when they closed Durham School (Principal Otto's last school). They have the "informational" meetings for show but the school still closed! It does not matter what the parents or kids say or do....the writing is on the wall. My heart breaks for those students who will lose what they love but with the district it is all about the money not the education of the kids! Such a shame the district has come to this...we need more schools with excellent leadership like this one opened in our city not closed.

Submitted by Sheppard Teacher (not verified) on December 16, 2011 7:00 am

This is a different group of people and we hope they will be more open-minded. Either way, we are proud of our students and their families and will do what we can to continue to support them.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 16, 2011 9:07 am

I hope you're right but I doubt it very much with Nunnery, Gamble, Evans, and here it comes, Nutter, involved, all of them with their hands out 24/7 with no regard to the kids' needs nor their own people.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 24, 2011 11:39 am

JDB rulez!

Submitted by Mrs. Clauss (not verified) on December 24, 2011 4:05 pm

Santa will not save Shepp.

Submitted by Sheppard Friend (not verified) on December 24, 2011 9:59 pm

Sheppard students know how to spell "rules."

Submitted by Ricktor (not verified) on December 25, 2011 7:54 am

They also know how to spell "closed".

Submitted by Sheppard Friend (not verified) on December 25, 2011 6:46 pm

Well, you might be right. But it's small-minded and petty to needle earnest students, parents and teachers who actually love their school and are willing to fight for it. Did your comment make you feel really clever, even though it mocks those striving to protect hundreds of kids? Will it still seem witty when a former Sheppard students, now forced to walk four extra blocks to DeBurgos, is caught in the crossfire of a gang fight and killed?

There is a lot at stake here. Unfortunately, to those who have no real empathy for children, it's just fodder for jokes.

Submitted by J.L.V (not verified) on January 9, 2012 10:19 am


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