In Memoriam: Opportunity Culture® Fellow Casandra Cherry

by | September 23, 2019

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett, September 23, 2019

Each year, Public Impact® announces a new cohort of Opportunity Culture® Fellows–multi-classroom leaders, principals, and others in Opportunity Culture® roles who have achieved strong results and been leaders in their schools and districts. This spring, Casandra Cherry, the multi-classroom leader for math and science in grades 6–8 at Phillips Middle School in the Edgecombe County, North Carolina, school district, was one of the 15 Fellows named for 2019-20.

“I cannot begin to explain the impact Ms. Cherry had on our school and community. … Her love, care, honesty, and friendship cannot even be captured in a single quote. Her mantra was to always keep coming back, and to always keep fighting because our children are the most important things in our lives; work harder and smarter because they are worth the effort.”–Stephen Ucheomumu, who served as a teacher on Ms. Cherry’s team last year, his first year of teaching

We’re saddened to share that Ms. Cherry passed away suddenly on August 21. The impact she made on students over her 20 years as an educator is incalculable, her principal at Phillips, Jenny O’Meara, said. Although she spent just two years at Phillips, “her impact on the Bulldog family will be everlasting.”

“She has led the Phillips school community in helping staff and students see what is truly possible for our students–that they can do anything,” O’Meara said. “Ms. Cherry stood for kids and for truth. Her ability to deeply connect with another human allowed her to grow students and staff not only in academic excellence, but also in mindset and perception of self. One student told me that Ms. Cherry made him think he could do anything. I told him she did that for adults, too, including me.”

A poster Ms. Cherry made, which still hangs in her classroom, said: “Dear Student: I believe in you. You can and you will succeed. I trust in you. You are listened to. You are cared for. You are very important to me. Sincerely, Ms. Cherry”

“I can’t think of a better way to sum up the kind of teacher she was,” O’Meara said.

“Ms. Cherry was fearless in the pursuit of what set her soul on fire,” said J. Parker, the assistant principal at Phillips.

Casandra Cherry was selected as the Phillips teacher of the year for the 2017-18 school year, and was a finalist for district teacher of the year.

As an MCL, Ms. Cherry “just got us. She differentiated her coaching and support–not because it’s a best practice, but because she cared about us as humans,” said Hillary Braden, a teacher on Ms. Cherry’s team last year. “She took time to understand our strengths, weaknesses, personalities, and background. Mr. U [team teacher Stephen Ucheomumu] and I wanted to do what she asked. We never wanted to disappoint her. I remember once when she told us she wouldn’t be doing her job well as a coach if we were stretching ourselves thin just because we didn’t want to let her down. She adjusted for us.”

Casandra Cherry, second from right, with her award.

This year, Ms. Cherry won the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund Career Award for Science and Mathematics Teachers along with a grant for $175,000–one of just five in North Carolina to receive the award. She planned to use the award to create a makerspace STEM lab first at Phillips, and then in every other district school over the next five years.

“I met Ms. Cherry when I first came to Phillips,” said Angel Sharpe, an eighth-grade student who spoke at Ms. Cherry’s funeral. “Ms. Cherry was amazing and pretty in all kinds of ways. She made her students laugh all the time. And her smile? Wow, it was amazing. She believed in her students when we didn’t believe in ourselves. Ms. Cherry always said, ‘Don’t say the word can’t, ’cause you can‘.”

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