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Parent Miriam Mercado with her two sons, who attend Sheppard Elementary. (Photo: Bill Hangley)

Bill Hangley / The Notebook

Sheppard supporters crowd CSPR forum to defend their school

Closing the North Philadelphia school is an option being considered, but plans are not final.

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

Among the 21 schools discussed at the Comprehensive School Planning Review public forums, only one school community bucked the process entirely: North Philadelphia’s Sheppard Elementary, a neighborhood fixture on Cambria Street since 1898.

Sheppard supporters, faced with the closure of the school as one of their study area’s planning options, spent weeks organizing in the neighborhood. School staff and local activists from the Philadelphia Liberation Center – a community organization with a socialist bent that is focused on “solidarity, education, and the fight for justice” – knocked on doors on weekends and raised about $130 from teachers and staff to rent a school bus to bring parents to the CSPR forum, a 1.5-mile journey.

“The stakes are monumental,” said organizer Steven Powers. “That school is truly an anchor in an otherwise abandoned neighborhood.”

The result of their efforts was a crowd of about 40 people, chanting on the sidewalk in support of Sheppard before the CSPR forum began. It was the only organized protest of its type at the three meetings.

Among the protest’s leaders was Sheppard teacher Mackenzie Stocum, who said that her school community is “open to change,” but that neighbors and parents must be brought much closer to the process.

“We want Sheppard and all schools to be the best they can be for our children,” Stocum told the cheering crowd. “But the CSPR process hasn’t engaged our community. … The kids in our neighborhood have rights, too.”

SEE: Equal approach, unequal results at CSPR public meetings

After hearing from a number of parents and teachers, the Sheppard supporters moved into the official CSPR forum and effectively took over their portion of the meeting, staging a town hall session in which one supporter after another took the microphone, sharing testimonials in English and Spanish.

Among them was Miriam Mercado, mother of two Sheppard students, who called the school a vital anchor in a deeply troubled community.

“Every student is known by every teacher by their first and last name,” said Mercado. “Even the drug dealers around there support Sheppard.”

Mercado praised Sheppard’s veteran staff for their ability to handle her boys, one of whom can be a handful. “I get calls all the time – but they don’t push him to the side. They don’t suspend him.”

Mercado said that the CSPR team’s options, which include relocating Sheppard students to a nearby K-8 school, weren’t satisfactory.

“I can’t see them going to Julia de Burgos,” she said. “There’s no room for them.”

The CSPR team rolled with the punches, as Benton took on the role of town hall facilitator, handing the microphone from one impassioned Sheppard supporter to the next. Among the biggest cheers were for Shakeda Gaines’ recommendation that Sheppard, now a K-4, expand to become a PreK-5. Several other ideas were floated, and Benton promised the CSPR team would “look at all of those options.”

Outside, District spokesperson Monica Lewis told Fox29 that the school’s fate is by no means sealed. “I want to stress that no decisions have been made, so if people are hearing that a school is being closed, that’s nothing more than hearsay,” Lewis said

But inside, Sheppard supporters vowed to keep up the pressure to save their school. On hand was Sheppard’s former principal, James Otto, who guided the school through a previous closure threat before retiring in 2013. Sheppard may not look great on paper, he said, but its community roots run deep,

“There is no place on a chart or graph for this kind of quality,” said Otto of the embattled school. “You just have to feel it.”