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

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

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 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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