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Isel Sisson's commitment to her students doesn't end in classroom: Community Heroes

Isel (pronounced E-sell) Sisson's work day as a teacher stretches far beyond the opening and closing bells at Cleveland's Clark Elementary School.

The 4-foot-9 whirl of energy tutors kids before and after school. She helps her husband coach the basketball team. And she shows up at students' homes whenever they or their families need her.

How far will she go? One morning, she and another teacher hustled to the home of a frustrated mother to help roust her son from bed and get him to school.

"The work she does behind the scenes for the multicultural W. 65th/Clark area is endless," wrote Jamey Pfahl, a former colleague at Clark, when he nominated her as a community hero.

"She is on call, not only for her current and former students 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but also for their parents, grandparents, even former and current staff members of the Clark community."

Principal Amanda Dalton Rodriguez echoed that assessment, calling Sisson a valued member of the staff "who is always going above and beyond her regular responsibilities to build relationships with the students."

Sisson is quick to say she's just part of a "coalition of heroes" at Clark School, which missed an Excellent rating on the most recent state report card by the slimmest of margins.

Heroes 2012: Isel Sisson
Isel Sisson, a teacher at Clark Elementary School, is very involved in her students, their families and the community.
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The achievement is especially impressive considering the school's high poverty rate and language challenges. Almost half of Clark's students are Hispanic and more than a quarter are learning English, which means that Sisson's fluency in Spanish – she is a first-generation Cuban-American -- comes in handy in many ways.

On a typical day, she may be called on to translate a special education plan so the parents can understand it or to assist a parent who's putting together a job application.

Her familiarity with Clark's West Side neighborhood also is a plus. Now 28, she moved to Cleveland with her mother when she was in the middle of seventh grade. They lived on East 79th Street, but she was bused across town to Joseph M. Gallagher School -- about a mile away from Clark.

Sisson's grandparents and mother were teachers, and she wanted to "break the mold" when she went to Cleveland State University, she said with a laugh.

But her attitude changed, and after one year at Lincoln-West High School, Sisson found her niche teaching eighth grade at Clark School.

"I believe I was put on this earth to work with children and I have fallen in love with what I do," she said.

Not all her work with students happens in the classroom. This month, for example, she coordinated a bake sale to help pay for her students to attend a four-day science camp in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Opportunities like that enable the students to see their own potential, Sisson said. She sees that promise everywhere at Clark, whether it's the charismatic boy whom others look to as a leader or a group of girls in her class "who live to be in the library."

"So many of them don't know how to dream," she said. "And sometimes you have to convince their parents to dream, too."

She also has been there for students and their families in the tough times, such as when a former student was dragged to her death by a car driven by her boyfriend.

Sisson had given birth only weeks before but went to the girl's home to support her family.

"I had to be there," Sisson said, trying to hold back the tears. "She was an excellent young lady, everything you would want in a student."

Then there was the former student who called for help when he suffered an emotional breakdown. Sisson and another teacher got him the care he needed -- and stayed with him from 10:30 a.m. until 3 the following morning.

Sisson's husband Jason, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, used to grumble a bit about how much time she spent away from their West Park home and three sons, ages 8, 5 and 1.

But then she persuaded him to coach the basketball team. She remembers what he said after a few weeks: "Babe, now I know why you do what you do. I love those kids."

Sisson understands exactly what he means.

"These are good kids at heart," she said of Clark's students. "I try to push them to be individuals who are self-sufficient and never feel pity for themselves. They may have been on a hard road, but the present doesn't reflect what the future can be."