Cydney Kramer races hard: from the occasional half-marathons she does for fun, to the everyday sprints she runs as a teacher.
Stopwatch in hand, she whisks through her Charlotte classroom. Thirty seconds to give out worksheets. Five minutes to review them. An hour to cram as much learning as she can into 34 seventh-graders. But first, a brief warmup.
“Close your eyes and zip your lips,” she tells them in a soothing voice. “Breathe in positivity and breathe out negativity. Breathe in respect, and breathe out disrespect. Breathe in that you are loved, you are valued and breathe out anyone who tells you differently.”
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Eyes back open, the day’s social studies lesson at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School begins. The topic: how the poor and oppressed sparked political revolutions through the centuries.
As she teaches, Kramer fights for another revolution: targeting the achievement gap that often leaves poor minority students academically behind. She refuses to believe that can’t change.
She bursts with earnest enthusiasm – a dynamo her peers selected as the school’s Teacher of the Year for 2014. Watching her run a classroom makes you wonder if clocking 13 miles in two hours requires less energy.
In under a minute, she high-fives a kid who figured out a tricky question, confirms another’s belief that French dictator Napoleon was short and calms a disrupter with a look and a firm: “I’ll wait.”
Kramer, 25, is a natural.
From her early days as the neighborhood baby sitter, to college summers helping orphans in a village in southern Uganda, to teaching in an urban American middle school, she holds this truth:
“Every child wants to be loved and know that what they do matters. Every one of these children has a limitless potential. It’s my job to help them realize that.”
Cydney Kramer started teaching at 11.
“She couldn’t wait to babysit because she loved taking care of younger kids in the neighborhood,” said her mom, Lisa Ludwig. “Even then, she was always thoughtful and caring.”
Kramer attended public schools in suburban Buffalo, N.Y., before heading to St. Bonaventure University. She worked part-time tutoring the school’s basketball players. She also managed a student-led nonprofit that sent her and others to Bethlehem, Uganda, to work with children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.
She planned on law school after college, but took a detour through Teach for America, which trains and places smart, motivated graduates into high poverty schools. Assigned to Martin Luther King Middle in 2012, she committed to the program for two years and is now in her third.
The school is in north Charlotte’s Hidden Valley neighborhood, home to a mix of mostly African-American and Latino families. Some students come from stable families with high expectations. Others live in a culture of poverty, drugs, gangs and violence.
Teachers set up individual plans to juggle the disparities. It’s a daunting task that can demoralize some. Not Kramer.
“She has this effervescence that’s contagious,” said principal Jennifer Dean. “She leads people with that vein of positivity. She doesn’t let the negative press that we get impact what she does. She’s always working to make someone’s reality a better one.”
‘You’re the best’
Letters and pictures from students line the wall near Kramer’s desk.
“Miss Kramer, you are the best teacher ever!” one student wrote. Another’s card says: “Miss Kramer, I love you with all my might, and don’t forget, you’re the best!”
Don’t let the love fool you. Students say she’s no pushover. Take the stopwatch. When she says 30 seconds, they have 30 seconds.
“She’s a very nice person, but she’s not one of those teachers who’s too nice, and I mean that as a good thing,” said seventh-grader Skyler Gardner. “She can run her class – no one runs over her.”
“Miss Kramer’s really nice – and she’s crazy,” confides classmate Lydia Sloan.
Like the time she led a silly class video rapping about lost pencils. And how she bursts out singing on someone’s birthday and occasionally dances around the classroom. And her singing? Let’s just say the kids don’t expect to see her on “American Idol.”
But she’s a great teacher, Lydia says. “She cares about every one of us, and she makes sure we get where we need to be.”
Summer break? No thanks
While some teachers get a break from kids over vacation, Kramer has spent her past two summers directing the Shalom Park Freedom School in southeast Charlotte.
The Freedom School is a Children’s Defense Fund literacy program for low-income children. With help from college interns, teen board members and many volunteers, Shalom Park hosts children from two elementary schools for the six-week camp. The kids spend mornings focused on reading and writing, and afternoons swimming, performing plays, learning chess and other camp activities.
Amy Lefkof, former co-chair of Shalom Park Freedom School, says Kramer’s smooth command of the program helped convince the community to expand it from 50 to 80 children.
“She’s a big-picture person as well as a worker bee … she’s able to keep all the balls juggling,” Lefkof said.
Kramer greets children with a high-five that Shalom Park members call her “Chai Five,” since “chai” means “life” in Hebrew. “And that’s what Cydney is – full of life, zest and exuberance,” Lefkof says.
Kramer’s family and friends, from Shalom Park to Buffalo, expect to get hit up for her causes. She also wants her students to learn a culture of giving what they can, and has enlisted their help for canned food and holiday toy drives.
Going the distance
In the fall she raised $800 to start a Let Me Run chapter at the school and became its first coach.
Let Me Run is a running and character-building program for boys. As they train for a 5K, they talk through lessons such as managing anger, avoiding drugs and alcohol, and making healthy choices.
Regina Williams’ son, Rakii Blake, was on the first team and can’t wait until the spring session starts this month.
“I think all schools should be part of it,” Williams said. “My son loved it – every practice he’d come home more excited than tired. It always gave him something to look forward to.”
Rakii, who wants to play in the NFL someday if he doesn’t become an engineer, says it’s good training. “I have a lot of energy and that helps release it,” Rakii said. “I run every day – hard.”
For Kramer, coaching and teaching is all about going the distance.
“Every minute matters.’’ The tougher the challenge, “the more it motivates me to do better and be better because there are so many lives at stake.”
About Cydney Kramer
Family: Mom, actress and drama teacher Lisa Ludwig, runs a summer Shakespeare festival; dad, Randy Kramer, owns a musical theater in Buffalo, N.Y.; brother, Griffin, is a senior at St. Bonaventure University.
Lives in: NoDa.
Hobbies: Running, cooking, baking and trying new restaurants.
Favorite eating spot: JackBeagle’s.
Favorite classic: “The Great Gatsby.”
Newly read favorite: “All the Light We Cannot See.”
Favorite singer: Beyoncé.
Favorite place: Walt Disney World.