This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
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.
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 Foundation. Follow our coverage of the facilities master plan community meetings, and discuss school-specific issues in our forum.