Otto, a lean man who roams the school's halls in shirtsleeves and a tie, a walkie-talkie at his waist, stood at the back of the long room last Thursday and watched Rock instructor Gina Angelucci warm up a group of boys and girls in too-big Rock T-shirts.
"In a community like this, the street is the law. They have a lot going against them, but right here, they're ballet students," Otto said.
His classrooms are crowded, and his budget barely covers necessities, so Rock's no-charge outreach program is a dream. And his students know it, their calm during dance class a sure sign.
Dressed in black, Angelucci was an accessible ballerina dispensing frequent smiles to students with varying degrees of flexibility and fitness.
She skip-stepped across the floor with those having trouble getting the hang of it; she rolled up too-long pants; she kept backs straight, bellies tight, arms out, paying special attention to a boy leaning to the right, shirt bunched up, but working so hard, smiling so big.
By the end, his jetés - jumps in which the weight is thrown from one foot to the other - were perfect.
Angelucci introduced a new step, the chassé - a slide forward, then a jump - and the students said the word slowly (sha-SAY), carefully, together, then practiced the motion.
"It's like your legs are attracted with a magnet," Angelucci said. "Pretend you've got something sticky under your shoe. Slide, and jump."
The 32 fourth graders are divided into three morning sessions - those who opt out get extra math or reading time - and receive 45 minutes of ballet instruction on Thursday and 45 minutes of modern, hip-hop and African dance instruction on Tuesday.
The class is free, and students do the best they can in their school shoes, stiff Nikes, worn Converses, and everything in between. Sometimes Angelucci asks them to dance in stocking feet.
But there is always a sense of wonder.
"It's really hard work. I notice when we dance, all you hear is a lot of cracking from our bodies," said Jianna Mendez, 9, a sprite who stood near Angelucci after class to tell her that she had been practicing, that she'd like to be a ballerina, an ice skater.
"Ballet helps us," said classmate Delfi Alberto, 9. "It teaches us balance. We stretch - our arms, our knees."
Jianna nodded seriously.
"You have to hold your stomach up, and if you can't breathe, just breathe with your nose," she said. "All kids should have a chance to do ballet. It's so fun."
Thomas Perez, 9, said he liked the way he felt after dancing, as if he had gotten a good workout.
"I raised my hand to do this because boys can do ballet, too," he said.
Though ballet is unfamiliar to most, they take it seriously, even the boys.
"I have never seen any form of ridicule," Otto said. "They support one another. Some of their high leaps are high stumbles, but they take pride in it, and in this neighborhood, pride is a hard thing to come by."
At the end of the session, Angelucci led the girls, then the boys, in deep bows. They clapped for one another.
"I'm a sweatball," one boy shouted, the class calm breaking as everyone dissolved into giggles.
"OK, guys, time to go. Please do your stretches," Angelucci told them, waving goodbye. "Please be here every Thursday."
Angelucci, who trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet and has taught for 10 years, has been going to Sheppard for five years as part of the RockReach residency, a city outreach program. It is also at Ludlow School in North Philadelphia, where first through fourth graders take dance as part of gym class.
Rock will use grants to help especially promising students continue their dance education at the school, but Angelucci said she liked that even if the students never danced anywhere else, they had learned something about poise and coordination and gracefulness.
"They're so talented. They have so much energy and enthusiasm," she said. "They will start helping each other, and by the end of the year, what a difference you see."
Contact reporter Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or email@example.com. To comment, or to ask a question, go to http://go.philly.com/schooltalk.