During a recent tribute to Shepard, actor Larry Gilliard, who portrayed drug dealer D'Angelo Barksdale on the HBO series "The Wire," recalled a daunting encounter when he was a freshman.
"I was late for a concert and I was coming up the back stairway from the cafeteria to the second floor," he said. "I may have been running. Who was standing there, blocking the doorway, facing me with her hands on her hips and no smile? Leslie. Now, you have to imagine the back lighting that made a halo all around her. And, you have to imagine the wind tunnel blowing her hair. And you have to imagine the Wonder Woman costume. That's the Leslie I know."
By February, Shepard was beginning to suspect that she would soon need all the superpowers at her disposal.
Alonso, struggling to close a $73 million gap in the fiscal 2012 budget, offered early retirement and a buyout to 3,200 veteran teachers. Such an initiative was unprecedented in Baltimore, and it got Shepard's attention. So did subsequent warnings that the situation was dire and would affect every school in the system.
It was hard — no, impossible — for Shepard to plan for budget cuts when it would be months before she had hard numbers. She warned her department heads to brace for hard times.
"I'm usually the most creative budgeter and fundraiser," she said. "That's one of my strengths. "But I'm also a worrier. We've been reading that the schools will have to make wrenching decisions this year between retaining staff and eliminating programs."
Bilal wasn't helping her mood. Again he was failing his classes. He was on academic probation, barred from performing until his grades improved, an odious punishment for a youth seeking a career onstage.
In a twist, Bilal even was failing dance — largely because of his attitude. No matter how many times his teachers told him otherwise, Bilal feared he didn't have what it takes to succeed as a dancer. As a result, he was easily defeated and extremely thin-skinned. When instructors criticized his performance, it felt as though they were confirming his deepest fears.
"Some things that teachers say hurt our feelings and we take them to heart," he said. "We feel like we're being attacked. They don't know that 10 minutes after class is over, we've run into the bathroom and started crying because of something they said."
For his own good, Bilal's dance teachers couldn't coddle him; no professional dance troupe would put up with such behavior.
Throughout the year, Shepard averaged one meeting a month with Bilal individually, with his parents and with staff. She arranged weekly counseling sessions with a school psychologist to provide the teen with techniques for managing his anger and anxiety.
"I'm afraid that Bilal is digging a hole so deep he won't be able to climb out," Shepard said. "That's what worries me the most. He's wasting every opportunity we've given him. It's so sad and disappointing."
As she saw it, there were only two paths he could follow and the outcomes were terrifyingly stark. If he graduated, if he accepted instruction from his teachers, there was an excellent chance he'd be invited to join a professional troupe.
And, if not?
One day after class, Pera took Bilal aside:
"You either shape up and graduate or you're out on the street," she told him. "If you go back to your old high school, they will eat you alive."
The hardest days
In early spring, the whole building celebrated after one of their own was tapped to succeed Shepard. On April 12, the school board named Chris Ford, the cerebral, fiercely dedicated chairman of the music department, as the school's fourth director.
"When Chris came forward as a candidate, I was ecstatic," Shepard said. "No one is more hardworking and passionate about the students and this school than he is."
Unfortunately, the harmony was short-lived. Anyone who phoned the director during the first week of May knew as soon as she answered that something was badly wrong. Shepard tried to speak in her usual conversational peaks and valleys. But she couldn't summon the energy and her voice flatlined.
For the first time in the school's history, she had discussions with three staff members that began, "I have really difficult news to tell you."
On April 25, Shepard learned that her school was facing a $198,000 deficit for the 2011-12 school year. She had four days to make ends meet. "This has been the worst week of my career," she said. "This is the first time that we've ever had a budget in the minuses, and the consequences are devastating."
Shepard had just $29,358 in discretionary funds. Even if she allowed the lease to expire on the school's two photocopiers and brought in toilet paper from home, it would barely dent the deficit. The only option was to lay off full-time faculty members.