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How a Kensington elementary school convinced teachers to stay despite the neighborhood’s challenges

Like the district's high teacher-turnover schools, Isaac A. Sheppard School in West Kensington has its challenges. But its teachers stay for years, thanks to support from strong principals and from one another.

Luis Rivera dances down the hallway at  in West Kensington's Isaac A. Sheppard School, which has low teacher turnover.
Luis Rivera dances down the hallway at in West Kensington's Isaac A. Sheppard School, which has low teacher turnover.Read moreHeather Khalifa / Staff Photographer

Every morning, principal Elana Galli stands outside Isaac A. Sheppard Elementary to greet her students.

As she ushers them into the 140-year-old gray stone building, she worries whether the child with only one pair of shoes will find them this morning, or whether some will arrive without clean clothes and need to quietly borrow some to avoid being teased.

One thing Galli doesn’t have to worry about is whether her staff will leave her, and Sheppard’s kids.

Although the challenges of working in West Kensington are real, the tiny K-4 school employs some of the district’s most senior educators. Half of Sheppard’s teachers have worked there for almost two decades. One veteran commutes an hour each way from South Jersey.

Sheppard’s success holding on to experienced teachers stands in contrast to the 26 schools identified by The Inquirer as having alarmingly high rates of staff churn, hindering some of the city’s most vulnerable children.

Nearly all of these high turnover schools are in neighborhoods below the poverty line and predominately minority, just like Sheppard.

But there’s a difference. Sheppard has a younger and smaller student population than most, and its teachers say they feel supported by one another and by the principals they’ve worked for over the years. So they stay.

“This is not a school where you come in, close your classroom door, and work alone,” said Colleen Lutz, a literacy specialist who has taught at Sheppard for 20 years. “Knowing every other teacher in this building has my back really helps. We’re family.”

Education experts say a stable teaching staff is crucial to children’s academic success and emotional health, and the continuity at Sheppard helps students feel safe and ready to learn.

When Galli became principal there almost two years ago, she saw the school’s teacher stability as an asset whose potential hadn’t been fully tapped.

For example, Galli realized many students scoring in the lowest category for state testing, “below basic,” just missed being in “basic,” the next tier up. So she directed her veteran staff to focus on those students, and they managed to raise up some of their neediest learners as well as cut the share of students with the lowest scores nearly in half.

“I feel privileged to lead a staff that wants to be here,” Galli said. “I have taught in and led schools that lacked a sense of community. At Sheppard, it’s wonderful to foster it and not have to build it.”

Unlocking kids’ learning brain

At Mitchell Elementary, a K-8 school in Southwest Philadelphia, students know when they enter the school that there’s a good chance they’ll have Robert Wharton as their fourth-grade teacher. Wharton has spent 18 years at Mitchell, a few blocks from the house where he grew up. He could leave for a suburban district, but as an African American man, he finds it important that his students see a role model who grew up in the same circumstances they are in.

For part of Wharton’s tenure, Mitchell struggled, and teacher turnover was high. But over the last several years, a new principal and her team have brought new energy to the school. Now, the school is a place where teachers stay; turnover is improving. In 2017-18, three-quarters of the staff were the same as the year before. For 2018-19, that climbed to 85 percent — up from just 50 percent in 2012.

While turnover decreased, the school’s academic achievement has shot up. It’s among the city’s leaders in academic growth. Wharton said the lower turnover and surging academics are related.

A stable teaching force “means everything in the world, because kids need consistency,” Wharton said. As Mitchell earns a reputation as a place where people want to teach, “we’re all seeing improvements, academically, behavior-wise. The kids and teachers are getting what they need.”

Bregy Elementary in South Philadelphia also has enviable teacher stability: Over the last two school years, 97 percent of the school’s faculty was unchanged.

Jonathan Leibovic, who teaches seventh and eighth graders, is one of Bregy’s newest teachers, in his second year at the school. He believes that teacher retention is one of the factors that sets the positive tone of the school, which has made academic gains in recent years.

“It’s a self-perpetuating cycle,” Leibovic said. “When the teachers are retained, they have better relationships with students and families, and the students and families trust them more, and the teachers don’t want to leave.”

Stephen DiDonato, associate director of Thomas Jefferson University’s Community and Trauma Counseling Program, said that it makes sense scientifically that schools with a more stable faculty tend to perform better academically.

“Those connections that those kids have are going to unlock their learning brain at a much higher level,” said DiDonato.

School as a safe haven

At Sheppard, Lutz spends her days working with small groups of students who are struggling readers. She knows the names of all 167 enrolled at the school and those of many of their siblings and cousins, too. In recent years, she’s even taught the children of former students.

Teachers such as Lutz, who know their students well, can motivate them to attend school or persist when they’re frustrated by a lesson they don’t understand. That encouragement has led the share of Sheppard students coming to school 95 percent of the time to double since last year.

Sometimes having a teacher to regularly confide in can help students learn.

On a recent school day, Lutz led students through an exercise in writing sentences as a way to test their knowledge of composition. As a prompt, she asked a small group of third graders to write down their dreams.

“I have a dream that people will stop shooting because people die.”

“I have a dream that bullying will stop.”

After the students turned in their assignments and returned to their regular classroom teacher, Lutz teared up as she read their work.

“It’s very important that the children know all of us and see school as a safe haven,” she said. “That’s the only way they’re going to learn.”

Sometimes Sheppard’s proximity to West Kensington’s open air drug market means teachers and students hear gunfire from inside their classrooms. Their parents, many of whom live within blocks of the school, can hear those same shots. Ali Martinez, 26, said she trusts her 6-year-old daughter’s teacher to protect her.

“When I hear gunshots, I never think I need to rush over to make sure she’s safe,” Martinez said of her daughter, Alianna. “I know she is.”

Teacher stability combined with strong leadership makes Sheppard, despite its many challenges, a place where even new teachers can thrive — unlike the 26 schools with high turnover, where new teachers all too often feel unsupported and overwhelmed, and quickly burn out and leave.

Keely Gray started her career at Sheppard about a decade ago as a student teacher assigned to Lutz. She said she always felt comfortable asking her more senior colleagues for advice on lesson planning and classroom management.

“Everyone was so welcoming and supportive in those early years,” Gray said. “They helped me grow.”

Several years ago, she left to work at a larger school in Northeast Philadelphia, where fewer students lived in challenging circumstances. But she said it lacked the sense of camaraderie she felt at Sheppard. So she did what few experienced teachers in Philly appear eager to do: She took her talents back to the high-poverty school.

“This school has my heart,” Gray said. “It’s where I belong.”