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In teacher Rodney Robinson, a struggling Richmond Public Schools scores a national victory
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In teacher Rodney Robinson, a struggling Richmond Public Schools scores a national victory

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Brooke Klippstein Ullman’s two children — one, a sixth-grader at Richmond’s Albert Hill Middle School, and the other, in second grade at Linwood Holton Elementary School — left the kitchen Wednesday after dinner like they do most nights.

Filled up on grilled pork tenderloin, the two were off to talk with friends and spend some extra time outside thanks to the nice weather. But Ullman called the two back into the kitchen of her Bellevue neighborhood home.

Rodney Robinson, a Richmond teacher, was on the evening news and it was must-watch television. Together they watched as the CBS program shared an announcement made earlier Wednesday, that for the first time in city history, Richmond was home to the National Teacher of the Year.

“This is a nice victory for Richmond and demonstrates what excellent teachers we have in a school system that consistently struggles monetarily,” Ullman said.

Richmond Public Schools’ shortcomings are well known. But now, a teacher who instructs only a few dozen students inside the city’s juvenile detention center has brought joy to a schools community longing for a win.

“It’s a symbol of the greatness in RPS. It’s a symbol of the greatness of the thousands of staff who are working to improve the lives of our kids,” Superintendent Jason Kamras said about Robinson’s crowning. “It’s a symbol of what we can do and I hope it is a symbol of what is to come in Richmond Public Schools.”

The announcement Wednesday on “CBS This Morning” made Amy Wentz late dropping off her daughter at school.

The nerves crept in for Wentz as each of the four finalists were highlighted about 8:45 a.m. When Robinson’s picture moved to the front of the screen, Norah O’Donnell’s announcement that Robinson was the country’s best teacher was muted by screams of joy from Wentz.

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“Our teachers head into classrooms daily, with love in their hearts for our students,” Wentz said Thursday. “Rodney winning this honor showcases that love and dedication to our children.”

She was on hand Thursday for festivities at Robinson’s school, Virgie Binford Education Center on Oliver Hill Way. Elected leaders, co-workers, school officials and former students gathered to celebrate Robinson, who was named the city’s best teacher in November 2017, setting him on the course to become National Teacher of the Year.

The ceremony in the school’s gymnasium served as a welcome home for the teacher who has spent his entire 19-year teaching career in the city.

“Each and every student deserves a teacher like Rodney Robinson,” said Mayor Levar Stoney, who presented the history teacher with a key to the city. “There are no lost causes in Rodney’s heart.”

Eight of Robinson’s former students from Armstrong High School, the East End school where he spent the majority of his career, attended the ceremony and were the first people Robinson hugged after it ended. About 10 of Robinson’s former co-workers at Armstrong were also in attendance. One former co-worker, Ta’Neshia Ford, took over as principal of Virgie Binford and lured Robinson away from Armstrong in 2015 to take on a bigger challenge of teaching incarcerated students.

Robinson, who said he’s still recovering from a whirlwind 24 hours loaded with media interviews and travel, has made it his mission, with an elevated platform thanks to his new title, to advocate for more resources for at-risk students.

“He is a fierce fighter for equity,” Kamras said Thursday during the ceremony.

Kamras, a former National Teacher of the Year himself, was brought to Richmond last year to turn around the ailing district, a challenge he hopes a five-year strategic plan can fix.

For now it’s a matter of funding that plan, something city officials are hammering out. The debate on funding continues, but one teacher has lifted the community’s spirits.

Said Wentz: “We’ve shown that great teachers are in RPS, and now ensuring they have the support and resources they need is where we want to be.”

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

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