Beating the Odds

College of Education students, staff, and alumni work closely with Philadelphia’s Isaac A. Sheppard Elementary School, which is paying big dividends for both schools.

Ten years ago, James Otto was assigned to Isaac A. Sheppard Elementary School to close it down. But during his second year as principal of this small elementary school in a challenged urban neighborhood, Penn State's College of Education found Sheppard.

From there, the institutions established a partnership, which Otto credits for helping Sheppard rise above people’s expectations for the school.

“Penn State is part of the lifeblood of Sheppard,” said Otto, who retired as principal of Sheppard in June 2013 and whose respect for the University is evident when speaking with him. “Our school probably would have closed if it had not been for Penn State.”

“Penn State is part of the lifeblood of Sheppard. Our school probably would have closed if it had not been for Penn State.”—James Otto

A Pipeline of Talent

“A lot of my staff graduated from Penn State. Three of my current teachers were student teachers from Penn State,” said Otto, again citing the quality of students coming from the College of Education as the reason for hiring. “The College of Education does a fantastic job preparing (students). Every semester we get a new batch of student teachers who, year after year, make us better.” 

Keeley Gray, 2008 College of Education alumna, is a third-grade teacher at Sheppard who fell in love with the school when she completed her student teaching there. She sees her students growing with weekly online tutoring sessions via iChat between students at Sheppard and volunteer students from the College of Education.

“I am involved in iChat for third and fourth grade,” said Gray. “(My students) get homework help and extra help they need academically. It is also so great to see them have someone else to talk to and form relationships with.”

Stephanie Ironside, a secondary education major and online tutor, said she thought becoming a tutor was a great opportunity.“Having this experience with the younger kids is benefiting me in educational psychology and adolescent development. It is making me more well-rounded as a student,” Ironside said. “I think it is a great experience. I recommend it.”

"Every semester we get a new batch of Penn State student teachers who, year after year, make us better.”

—James Otto

As part of the special relationship between the two institutions, elementary students, their families, and staff from Sheppard visit Penn State’s University Park campus.

They get to spend time with their iChat tutors in person as they tour the campus, which this year included stops at the Berkey Creamery, the All-Sports Museum and Beaver Stadium, and the Nittany Lion Shrine, as well as exposure to college residence halls and classrooms.

“For a population for whom the terms ‘college’ or ‘university’ are not part of their lexicon, this is just a remarkable experience,” said Otto. “We have brought anywhere from 50 to 60 children here over the course of the last several years with their parents, many of whom have never been to college or seen colleges.”

According to Otto, Sheppard is regularly under the threat of closure. Last year, the school was once again on a list of schools to be closed. However, that did not happen. Otto said that rising test scores and other data indicated to the School District of Philadelphia that the students at Sheppard were thriving.

“We are in a community that has lots of challenges: poverty, unemployment, drug traffic,” said Otto. “Our kids live in challenging circumstances. Penn State raised the school to the point where the school district realized that they could not afford to close Sheppard.”

For now, Sheppard is beating the odds, and Otto said were it not for Penn State, there would be no Sheppard.

“It is Penn State that has given us the strength and courage to push on when every one else is saying to close the little, old schools because they are no longer relevant,” said Otto. “My staff last year proved to the school district that we were relevant, and a large part of that relevance comes from Penn State.”