When the parents of a boy on Ismael Ontiveros’ baseball team got into a fistfight in an alley near Orville Wright School recently, Ontiveros did two things immediately out of experience and instinct.
He took the young player to his own home that night and kept him there until it was time to go to school again Monday morning.
“So he didn’t have to deal with it,” Ontiveros said.
And Ontiveros called Heather Sherburn, principal at Orville Wright Elementary School in Modesto’s airport neighborhood.
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“She was instrumental in getting him counseling at school,” Ontiveros said. “She made sure he had help.”
To suggest Sherburn has been the go-to person in the poverty-stricken airport neighborhood since taking over as the school’s principal seven years ago would be somewhat misleading. To the contrary, she’s been driving change for good in an area where gunfire and gangs still dominate, where homelessness is home for some, where poverty forces three and sometimes four generations of families to live in the same home, and where drugs remain a huge problem. Largely Latino in population, it’s a school with a 30 percent churn of students from year to year, meaning 3 of 10 will be new and not there very long for a variety of reasons.
Sherburn refused to accept the status quo and allow the campus simply to be a safe haven. The kids are there to learn, she tells them, because an education is the path to their futures.
But the neighborhood will soon lose its champion, and the children their most effective advocate. Sherburn will leave next month to become the director of instruction, assessment and technology integration for kindergarten through 12th grade at Mountain House near Tracy. She spent 27 years as a teacher and administrator with Modesto City Schools, including four as principal at Wilson Elementary and the past seven at Orville Wright. It’s a well-earned promotion. It also will be the first time in decades she’ll work in a middle-class school, which is the hardest part about leaving, she said.
“I’ve worked my whole career at at-risk schools,” she said. “I’ve always had a passion for it. I said, ‘Put me in the kind of school I’m meant to work with.’”
At risk? Sherburn remembers at least six murders in the neighborhood during her time at the school, including four that happened either when children were at school or in the after-school program.
“They hear gunshots every night,” she said.
Sherburn’s own family moved from Ohio to Modesto, where she enrolled as a fifth-grader at Rose Avenue School. She went on to graduate from Downey High in 1984, each day seeing a logo on campus that urged students: “Downey – Make a Difference!”
“It was the kind of thing we joked about as kids,” she said. “But as an adult that slogan has been the driving force in my entire life. You can’t complain about something if you’re not going to make a difference.”
Indeed, she has. She’s used a mix of encouragement, caring and tough love to motivate children in a school where 60 percent of the parents are not high school graduates. At the same time, she and staff demanded the most from the children and disdained excuses.
“If I have pity, then I’ll pity them into poverty,” Sherburn said.
“She brought the Peace Builders program to her school, teaching her students to live lives of civility in what is at times an uncivilized community,” Modesto City Schools Superintendent Pam Able said. “She fundraises so she can afford the luxury of a summer Jump Start academy, which allows her students the opportunity to get ready for the new school year and explore science, math and technology.”
Consequently, test scores rose above 760 in the Academic Performance Index, and Orville Wright earned an 8 out of possible 10 in the same-school rankings. Scores dropped, Sherburn said, two years ago “as a result of how we did the testing” as they prepared for the implementation of the new Common Core State Standards.
“That was on us,” she said.
Some parents take no interest, Sherburn said, while others are from “hardworking immigrant families who want their children to be successful. They’re concerned about how their children are acculturated and that they have a future.” She managed to get buy-in from the Latino community without becoming fluent in Spanish, relying on bilingual staff members to talk with non-English-speaking parents.
She spoke at service clubs, including Rotary, imploring them to take an interest in the airport neighborhood, which, she said, “is the forgotten neighborhood of Modesto. People talked about the south side and the west side, but nobody was paying any attention to the airport neighborhood.”
So Sherburn helped form the Airport Neighborhood Collaborative, an alliance involving government, nonprofits and businesses with a stake in improving the quality of life in the area. The collaborative worked to get streetlights and sidewalks so that the kids wouldn’t have to slog through mud as they neared the campus. They built a community center on campus, operated through fundraising efforts she has spearheaded.
The Orville Wright Flyers youth baseball program, Ontiveros said, has become a source of pride in the neighborhood in no small part because of her efforts.
“We were struggling to raise money, but she always had a lead somewhere, funding somewhere, and she helped us out with her own money,” he said.
Now, she is leaving and will be hugely difficult to replace. Able said they will look for someone within the school district who will understand the needs of the school and its community.
“The difficulty is to get someone with the same kind of passion she’s had for the school,” Able said. “It can be like doing missionary work. There’s nothing cushy about it.”
Ontiveros, who grew up in the neighborhood and worked closely with Sherburn, has one simple request:
“All I’m hoping is that we get someone who gives half of what she gave,” he said. “I’m so bummed out she’s leaving. I’ll take half of that, and it would still be tremendous.”