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On the Outside Looking In

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February was an interesting month for sixth-grade math teacher Octavia Sansing-Rhodes. On February 28, WGN-TV and St. Xavier University named Sansing-Rhodes their "Teacher of the Month" and awarded her a $1000 check for her fine work at Chicago's Herzl Elementary School.

That honor, however, was bittersweet because it came just six days after Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard effectively fired Sansing-Rhodes, along with everybody else who works at Herzl.

The purge was announced at the February 22 meeting of the Chicago Board of Education. Late that afternoon, the mayor's hand-picked board voted (unanimously, of course) to "turnaround" Herzl in 2012-13 by handing the school over to the mayor's friends at the Academy for Urban School Leadership.

Bottom line -- everyone in the building gets fired, and AUSL gets to hire its own teachers, principals, custodians and cafeteria workers.

Oh, yeah -- and as an added bonus, the Board of Ed (headed by former AUSL chairman David Vitale) will provide the new AUSL management with roughly $9 million for upgrades to the building.

After all, what would have been the point in wasting a fresh coat of paint, a new elevator, or a roof that didn't leak on Sansing-Rhodes and her colleagues?

Funny how those dollars always seem to follow the connected folks at AUSL.

It turns out February's "Teacher of the Month" has an unusual perspective on this "turnaround." Sansing-Rhodes trained as an AUSL teacher, did her student teaching in AUSL "turnaround schools," and said that she learned a lot from the program.

This time, however, she's on the outside looking in. But she's doing her best to take it all in stride.

She'll definitely miss her Herzl students, and she's working hard to get them excited about the new management and all the good things that $9 million and additional teaching resources will mean for the kids. At the same time, though, she acknowledged that February's "turnaround" vote was quite a blow to teacher and staff morale at her school.

Sansing-Rhodes recently sat down with me for a couple of hours to talk both about her profession and her interest in finding a new teaching assignment in another struggling neighborhood school. Based only on our conversation and my layman's observations, I'd expect a sharp principal to snatch her up quickly.

But what do I know? I also would have fixed Herzl's leaky roof years ago.

Two things impressed me greatly about Sansing-Rhodes. The first was her passion for her kids; the second was her humility. Watch the short WGN-TV piece about February's Teacher of the Month and you'll get some sense of her passion. But it's not until you talk with her about how she made that connection with her Herzl students that you begin to grasp her humility.

It wasn't always smooth sailing. She'd already taught in a couple of challenging CPS schools, but she was thrown into her first Herzl classroom two months into the school year. Before she got that assignment, the kids had had substitute teachers.

Sansing-Rhodes walked into her classroom and realized that she was, in her own words, "new blood." The Herzl kids began testing her day in and day out for the next eight weeks. Forget about volume and surface area, it was all Sansing-Rhodes could do to get control of her classroom.

It wore on her. She said there were nights that she cried about what she'd gotten herself into.

But she and her kids eventually got on the same page and developed respect for each other. After that, math became the order of the day in her classroom, and neither she nor they ever looked back.

What changed?

Sansing-Rhodes said she was gradually able to build a respectful community within her classroom because she received constant support from Herzl's other sixth-grade teacher, a 17-year CPS veteran. Herzl's principal and assistant principal also worked closely with her to develop strategies for classroom management.

Sansing-Rhodes is a confident but humble woman. She's begun to appreciate that wisdom comes with age and experience, and she's learned that, in part, from her mother, a retired CPS teacher.

She also knows that teachers in Chicago and other large urban districts are taking a public-relations beating right now, but she remains on a mission to convince inner-city kids -- many of whom grapple with hunger, homelessness, and, yes, hopelessness -- that math and school matter.