Cassandra “Casi” Cline’s classroom was, in the words of her school district’s top official, “a celebration of the children’s work.”
“(I)t just had those comfortable aspects to it that made everyone feel like it was for them,” said McLeod, who came to the district as the director of elementary curriculum a year after Cline landed there.
Cline’s classroom was decorated with students’ artwork and projects. She’d arranged desks in clusters so they could work on small-group projects. Part of the room featured a U-shaped table where she could offer hands-on instruction to a handful of students at a time.
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And there was a rocking chair, where she could sit and read with her kids.
Cline, who recently moved to Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island, according to neighbors, was killed Monday morning after an alligator pulled her and her dog into a lagoon near her home, according to S.C. Department of Natural Resources officials. She was 45 years old.
State officials said she was trying to save her dog, which the alligator had initially targeted — she succeeded, and the dog escaped unharmed.
Cherry Baumgartner — a full-time Sea Pines resident for more than seven years who met Cline at a couple of community parties — described her as “vibrant” and “vivacious.” Cline and her husband moved to the area about a year and a half ago, Baumgartner said, remembering her as a person who was “full of life.”
She was also a master teacher — scheduled to start the school year in September, according to district officials.
“(I)f you have to ask me who has the toughest job in a school district,” McLeod said, “I’m going to tell you without hesitation that it’s a kindergarten teacher.”
A visitor to Cline’s classroom would have seen a “gorgeous woman” with “a beautiful head of curly red hair” who, McLeod said, coupled a “presence in the classroom” with a sweet demeanor.
Like “Mary Poppins,” McLeod said, the kind of teacher any parent or grandparent would want their child to have.
Kindergarten teachers are often the first instructors a child will interact with, McLeod said. And they have to ensure students grow individually while addressing, and closing, any learning gaps within the cohort as a whole — that’s the “magic” of a kindergarten teacher, she said.
And Cline had the magic.
She touched more than 400 students’ — and their families’ — lives during her time there, McLeod said, explaining the district, located about 75 miles south of Syracuse, near Binghamton, enrolls about 3,800 students annually.
She was a former resident of Binghamton, according to the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, and often walked her dog on the city’s west side.
Last year, Cline received the local Parent Teachers Association’s Founders Award for her work at George F. Johnson Elementary School, McLeod said. The award is given to teachers and community members who go “out of their way on behalf of children,” she said.
“(Cline) was the total package,” McLeod said.
McLeod said she talked to Cline’s husband late Monday night to make sure he was comfortable with her speaking to reporters.
“(H)e wholeheartedly gave me permission,” McLeod said. “And he said please just make sure you emphasize ... reminding everyone how sweet a person she was.
“And you know, that word, it tends to be overused,” McLeod continued. “But in Casi’s case, that is who she was.
“She was a very sweet person.”