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College of Education > News and Publications > News: Jan-March 2014 > Letter from Former Sheppard School Principal Reflects on School Partnerships

Letter from Former Sheppard School Principal Reflects on School Partnerships

A letter from James P. Otto, the former principal of Issac Sheppard School, reflects on how school partnerships brings real success to struggling schools.

Dean's Message - Spring 2014


Dear College of Education Community Members,

Earlier this year, I received a letter from James Otto, the recently retired principal at the Issac Sheppard Elementary School in Philadelphia. The College has had a partnership with the school for the past ten years. We have placed interns in the school, hosted visits from Sheppard school families and teachers, and developed an innovative electronic tutoring program.

I am sharing two letters here:

  1. my response to Mr. Otto's letter and
  2. Mr. Otto's letter.

I think this exchange gives some valuable insight into the significance of the Sheppard School partnership. I am sharing Mr. Otto's letter with his permission.



February 8, 2014

Dear Jim:

Thank you so much for your kind and very thoughtful letter of January 24th. I read your letter with great interest, and it brought back so many fine and wonderful memories of the partnership you were so instrumental in developing between Penn State and the Isaac Sheppard School. So, please also accept our thanks for all you did to build and maintain this partnership. It has emerged as a model and we are hoping to do even more both at Sheppard and perhaps at additional sites. We are deeply engaged in strategic planning at the moment, so this is a good time to be taking stock of what has worked well, and the Sheppard partnership stands out as a success that works extraordinarily well at so many levels.

Your letter is addressed to me and “College of Education friends,” and I’m wondering if you would be comfortable with me making the letter public so that everyone in the Penn State College of Education community can have the benefit of your reflections and insights. Please let me know how you feel about this. You can reach me via e-mail at or by phone at (814) 865-2526.

It is quite impressive that a self-described “Temple guy” like you has a Nittany Lion statue proudly displayed, and I think this speaks volumes about your deep commitment to the improvement of education, regardless of what the origins of the resources might be. So, thank you for embracing Penn State and for helping us work together to make progress with some of society’s most vexing challenges. We are very proud of our association with you and the Isaac Sheppard School.

Again, thank you for writing, and please let me know how you feel about sharing your letter more broadly.

All best wishes.

David H. Monk
College of Education
Penn State University



January 24, 2014

Dear Dean Monk and College of Education friends,

After six months now on the shelf, a belated "Thank You" to all of you. I have spent the last six months trying to identify with the rest of the world, with some minor success. Projects that sat waiting for years are finally being addressed, and I have increased my involvement in the Boy Scouts, resuming the position of District Chairman for Lower Bucks County, one that I held several years ago. And books that have accumulated over the years are now actually being opened!

As part of my new-found leisure, I actually got to witness "autumn" this year. I had heard rumors that Fall in Pennsylvania was spectacular, but seeing it for myself was a revelation. I had seen hints of it before on the occasional weekend camping trip, but nothing on the scale of watching it arrive and develop. Winter pretty much looks the same from any perspective, brown and white; and I am looking forward to the arrival of Spring.

Looking back on my 30 years as a Principal, I am satisfied. As with any endeavor, some things worked, and some didn't Thankfully, more did than didn't Clearly, my proudest time of all was my ten years at Sheppard, the school that I was supposed to close ten years ago. The memories abound. This was made possible in no small part by all of you at Penn State. I dare say that Sheppard's demise would have been swift and certain, had it not been for the intervention of Penn State.

From the chance meeting almost ten years ago with Kyle Peck, the fortunes of that small school in the middle of nowhere changed forever. The injection of the quality and the energy that Penn State brought changed the face of Sheppard forever. From the afterschool programs, to the community engagement, to the on-line tutoring, to the family visits in the Spring, to the excellent "Sheppard Experience" teaching Interns, Sheppard took on the pride of Penn State. Rarely did a week go by in all of those years when there wasn't someone from PSU somewhere in the building. Every child at Sheppard developed a relationship with at least one Penn State representative, usually more. And many, many parents at Sheppard got to know someone connected to the University, an otherwise rare occurrence.

Penn State became the life-blood of Sheppard, always connected somewhere to what was going on. It would be impossible to place a value on the influence of the Student Teaching Interns over the years. Going from modestly hoping that some students might give the program a try, to seeing enthusiastic visiting Juniors anticipating their time at Sheppard; in my mind the program was a huge success. Not only were they well-trained back on campus, they were steadily and professionally supervised, with an eye towards generating excellent teachers. Dan Thompson, Allison Kootsikas, Susan Sealy, and Horatio Leftwich became part of the Sheppard family, and were as common a sight in the hallways and classrooms as anyone else.

There are things that I miss: the children, many of whom desperately needed everything that we could do for them, and the staff, many of whom are Penn State graduates. I visit Sheppard every month on the day of the parent workshops, when I get to
see the children and staff, and speak with the parents. I will also miss the semi-annual infusion of "Intern energy". Our Penn State Interns have been some of the finest young people that I have ever met, and a real credit to the University. They bring with them the benefit of their training, their supervision, and the quality of their Sheppard Mentors. They also bring with them the joy of learning to teach, and the laughter that comes with it. Sheppard is never short on laughter. I will miss them.

Among the other things that I will miss will be the consistent support that we received from Maria Schmidt's office, and the care with which they took to welcome our families to Penn State. The Penn State visits were incredible experiences for our families, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I know that they generated memories that will last forever, and maybe college aspirations. (I enjoyed them, too!) I will also miss the annual visit from the Hubert Humphrey Fellows, with Jane Reese. What an amazing experience, having educators from all over the world visit West Kensington! Who would believe that?

I proudly display my Nittany Lion statue, and for a Temple guy who anticipates our regular beating at the hands of the Nittany Lions football team, that says a lot. I thank Dan and Tina Thompson for travelling all the way down to Philly back in June to present it to me at our little farewell dinner. That meant a great deal to me and will be a moment that I will always treasure. Whatever the circumstances, and whatever the nature of publicity might be, please know that in my heart Penn State is one of the finest places on earth, thanks to all of you.

I am truly in your debt. And I will always treasure the experiences that I had through Penn State, and the support and the encouragement that I received from Penn State, specifically the College of Education, to do things at Sheppard that weren't going on anywhere else in our area. It is likely that I will have forgotten more than I remember, but the examples are legion. As I slide back into trying to appear "normal" to the rest of the universe, I will forever hold onto the memories, the pictures, the visits and the friendship that are my Penn State experience. When all is said and done, I, too, am Penn State. Muchas gracias.

Fondly, Respectfully, and Sincerely,

James P. Otto,
Former Principal,
Isaac Sheppard Elementary School