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June 07, 2024

Delco school community fights plan to close ecology center that houses beloved tortoise

Scenic Hills Elementary School in Springfield said it's shutting down the 24-year-old habitat due to the retirement of its founder.

Education Schools
Tortoise Delco School @SaveShelly/Facebook

Shelly, an African spurred tortoise, has called Springfield's Scenic Hills Elementary School home for more than 20 years. The district plans to shut down the school's outdoor ecology center despite offers from community members to maintain it.

A 150-pound, African spurred tortoise is being "evicted" from his longtime home in an ecology center at Springfield's Scenic Hills Elementary School, frustrating community members who said in a petition the district made a "callous" decision to close the outdoor habitat.

The quarter-acre ecology center was built in 1997 in a courtyard at the elementary school along Hillview Drive. It contains a pond, a stream and a variety of animals — ducks, frogs, box turtles, fish and the tortoise affectionally named Shelly. The school has used the environment as an outdoor classroom for students to get hands-on science instruction.

Peter Brigg, the director of teaching and learning for elementary education in Springfield, shared two letters with the school community this week explaining that the ecology center would need to shut down for multiple reasons. He said the decision was driven by the retirement of ecology center founder Donna Storti, who taught in the district for 43 years and had been primarily responsible for maintaining the habitat along with a small staff.

"While the concept of an Ecology Center that endeavors to support a tortoise such as Shelly has always been appealing, we have come to realize in practice that this space was not planned in accordance with industry standards and sustainability," Brigg said. "As it currently exists, this space presents a significant risk of harm to our school community."

Brigg claimed the ecology center puts school children near "a large amount of fecal matter and urine," especially when Shelly has to be brought into the school due to cold weather. He also said the environment has stagnant standing water and areas that pose various safety hazards to kids.

Shelly arrived at Scenic Hills in 2000 from a local pet shop. The school's website says the former owner of the tortoise bought him when he was the size of a quarter. He then outgrew multiple tanks and enclosures. Storti made a home for Shelly at the ecology center and used the animal's life story to teach students about the importance of responsible pet ownership. In captivity, African spurred tortoises generally live to be at least 50 or older.

After meeting with Storti in late May, the retiring teacher agreed to take Shelly into her care at her own home, Brigg said. The elementary school could continue its relationship with the tortoise by having scheduled days when he's brought in for visits. Other animals in the ecology center will be taken elsewhere to new homes. The district said it plans to remove the water features in the ecology center, remediate other hazards and develop a plan for an outdoor space that doesn't require the same level of upkeep.

More than 2,300 people have signed a petition calling for the school district to allow parents the chance to oversee the ecology center. The school teaches about 600 students from second through fifth grades.

"The EC at Scenic Hills is well loved and maintained by so many," the petition says. "All the parents are asking is for one year to prove we can run the EC smoothly and effectively; we have many resources to help support this undertaking. We still have not been given a CONCRETE explanation — just excuses — of why it's closing."

Brigg acknowledged in his letters that parents, staff and volunteers would be willing to take on the responsibilities at the ecology center.

"We know folks would step up and offer to assist when they could to continue this passion; however, through previous experiences and firsthand knowledge, the reality of such sustained continuation of the required labor-intensive care and service to the animals and the space simply does not endure as folks get busy, their children move on, etc.," Brigg said.

Even if school staff were willing to take over upkeep at the ecology center, Brigg said that would only take away from the time they have to focus on educating students.

Some parents planned to hold a peaceful protest outside the school on Friday afternoon to show support for Shelly and the ecology center. They've set up a "Save Shelly" Facebook page that details their issues with the district's handling of the situation.

"The school community is appalled by this insensitive decision by administrators after decades of environmental stewardship at the heart of the school's EC program," the petition says.

Brigg said the district is focused on creating a "sustainable school environment" that will maintain green space at Scenic Hills.

"We realize that this news may be upsetting for some folks. We understand," he said.