Tiny school's big heart is why it should stay open

Principal James Otto gestures for students to proceed quietly to lunch at Sheppard Elementary. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)

The best and worst of the Philadelphia school system is represented by Isaac A. Sheppard Elementary, a school that probably should be closed, but deserves to stay open.

If it survives, it can’t be because it stays under the School District’s radar. If anything, a spotlight ought to be shone on the things Sheppard is doing so they can be replicated. But in discussing the good, one must also note why Sheppard is vulnerable, as officials consider  the district’s declining enrollment and crippling debt.

It’s a minor miracle the little school in West Kensington is even open. Built in 1897, it doesn’t have a real gym or auditorium, and has only 290 students. District officials say they thought about closing Sheppard when  the Hunter and DeBurgos  schools were built nearby in 2002 and 2004.

The district even assigned Sheppard a principal who had overseen two closings. But instead of shoveling dirt over Sheppard, James Otto has spent the past nine years stoking its fires. To stay out of the district’s crosshairs, he found corporate partners like Merck and Home Depot to help fill the school’s needs.

More importantly, Otto has been able to keep intact a core group of dedicated teachers who share his philosophy that to succeed, a school must be a part of the community it serves. As Sheppard teacher Jamie Roberts put it, “We’re all like godparents to these children.” It makes a huge difference when children truly believe their teachers care.

The evidence is in the academic results Sheppard has achieved, meeting state standards in three of four years of examinations. That achievement would be outstanding for many schools, but deserves even greater recognition when you consider that 30 percent of Sheppard’s mostly poor, Hispanic students are learning English as a second language.

The district would be wrong not to consider closing Sheppard.  It must spend its funds more wisely, which includes right-sizing its inventory of buildings for the number of students it now serves. But it must use the proverbial scalpel approach to that assignment, and not chop off every school that doesn’t meet a size criterion.

There may yet be an innovative way to keep Sheppard and smaller schools like it open. Or it may be that the cost of maintaining such an ancient building makes its continuation a frivolous indulgence. That won’t do when its taxpayers’ money that’s being spent.

If a school like Sheppard has to close, though, extraordinary efforts must be taken to replicate its success elsewhere. Sheppard has provided the formula. It begins with a dedicated principal, caring teachers, a manageable student-teacher ratio, engaged parents, and corporate friends.