The purple and gold balloons festooned in the fenced-off yard around Issac Sheppard School blew lazily in the hot June air. It was just a little before noon — the calm before the storm.
In a few minutes, Sheppard's undersized corridors would be overrun with about 400 excited, stampeding little ones primed for Fun Day, the elementary school's end-of-the-year afternoon of games, activities, food and, well, fun.
Parent volunteers have come ready for battle, with brushes for face-painting, buns for hot dogs, nail polish and remover for mini-manicures.
It wasn't always like this. Principal James Otto admits that during the nine years he's been at the West Kensington school, parental involvement hasn't been an easy sell, for myriad reasons, starting with the fact that he's a non-Spanish speaker trying to communicate with Spanish-speaking parents.
Which is why parent-volunteers like José Villafañe are so important. Villafañe and his wife, Carmen, have put every one of their six kids through Sheppard, and Villafañe has volunteered for much of the time. I mean, what principal doesn't value a parent who possesses an institutional memory in two languages?
Now that Kianna, 7, the last of his line, is in first grade, Villafañe is determined that she finish there. It's even more urgent after Sheppard was one of only two schools (along with E.M. Stanton) granted a stay of execution by the School Reform Commission last spring.
"He's here all the time," Otto says of Villafañe. "He was on the team that made presentations [to the SRC] and has become quite active. He's been a good ambassador for the school."
The affable Villafañe, 43, is also everywhere at once. I had a hard time catching up with him on Fun Day. At first, they told me he was making an ice-cream run. When he returned, we had only a few minutes to talk before heading to the auditorium, where Villafañe fired up the Wii for a line of eagerly waiting students.
Watching him easily interact with the children, I get the sense that every day at Sheppard is fun day for Villafañe.
"That's all we do at home. Play the Wii and watch movies," says the unemployed security guard, who lives just blocks from the Cambria Street campus. He's the kind of dad who previews movies for suitability before he lets his kids watch. "So I pick movies that I like," he says with a laugh, "since I have to watch them twice."
The Villafañes emigrated from Puerto Rico 22 years ago.
But their neighborhood struggled, and Sheppard did, too.
"The school wasn't safe," Villafañe remembers. "There was no respect for the school yard. There was graffiti in the school and trash all over." Little by little, as more parents got involved, "We started cleaning and now it's a safe place for kids."
Then, there was the issue with parent participation. Villafañe said that before Otto arrived, teachers would make parents feel like failures "because they would call you about every little [disciplinary] thing," he said. While some parents want teachers to tell them everything their child is up to, Sheppard's parents would rather the teacher implement their own disciplinary strategies. Phone calls to stressed-out, hardworking parents should be a last resort, he says.
Otto continued to break down barriers by installing a series of bilingual parent workshops and hiring a Spanish-speaking community relations liaison who also lives in the neighborhood. "Those things contributed to making parents feel good about the school," he said.
So when the school was in jeopardy of closing and needed parents the most, they came through.
Hundreds of parents donning purple "Save Sheppard School" T-shirts showed up at community meetings, hundreds more at the hearings before the SRC, "more than we've ever seen," Otto says.
Now the pressure's on to keep up the momentum.
Which isn't easy to do in a 115-year-old building with no science lab, gym, or modern cafeteria. Still, Sheppard is bright, clean, and well-decorated. It's a welcoming place to learn; students have made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) three out of the last four years.
"What we're trying to do now is reinvent ourselves," Otto says. "We want to more initiatives and programs in place to establish ourselves as a vibrant, active place that is good for children and community. We want to make sure that the next time they draw up their list of schools [to close], we won't be on it."
Villafañe already has plans to start a parents' commission and a chess club.
"We have to keep up what we started," he says. "There's a lot to do with the little that has been given."