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Principal went extra mile

Dec. 15: One dressed up in goofy costumes to make her students smile.

Another was a psychologist — preparing to retire — who had seen generations of students through their parents’ divorces and difficult days.

Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Mary Sherlach, a school psychologist, were among the six adults killed at the school in the mass shooting yesterday, educators gunned down alongside the children they cared for as if they were their own.

Town officials said the principal was killed while lunging at the gunman as she tried to overtake him. Asked whether Hochsprung is a hero, Jeff Capeci, chairman of the town’s Legislative Council, said: “From what we know, it’s hard to classify her as anything else.”

The unimaginable loss of 20 children consumed much of America yesterday. But in Newtown, Connecticut, a tight-knit community of about 25,000 bonded by its schools, a profound, personal ache was felt also for the school staff members who were killed.

Sherlach, 56, was remembered for her many years of helping students cope with problems that they were unprepared to handle. And Hochsprung, 47, was mourned as a creative and dedicated educator who had quickly won over children and adults alike.

“I’m not surprised she gave her life in this fashion, trying to protect her students,” said Gerald Stomski, the first selectman of Woodbury, Connecticut, who knew Hochsprung. Grief-stricken Sandy Hook parents spoke of the elementary school as an extension of their own homes, a haven of support for children and their families.

That environment was fostered by Hochsprung, who began her job there in 2010 and had used the time since then to tamp down any nervousness children felt approaching the proverbial “principal’s office”. Before taking the job at Sandy Hook, she had worked at other schools in Connecticut.

“She was not the kind of principal I remembered as a kid,” said Diane Licata, the mother of a first grader and a second grader at the school. “She really reached out to the students and made them feel comfortable with her. She definitely took that extra step.”

Hochsprung organised festive days she called Wacky Wednesdays, when students were encouraged to wear goofy clothes that did not match. She had students dress up as their favourite storybook characters, and she was known for dressing up herself. Sometimes, she brought her poodle to school.

She was no distant authority figure. Licata said her young children regularly came home with stories of what Hochsprung had done that day. But for all the levity, Hochsprung also took education very seriously. She was the one who distributed long articles to colleagues about policy debates in Washington and highlighted news from the latest speech by Arne Duncan, the secretary of education.

She was also unusually tech savvy. She kept an active Twitter feed documenting the school — “In a fourth grade classroom right now”, she wrote in a recent message. She said she was impressed “by the calibre of instruction and by students’ deep thinking!”

Hochsprung believed that many students engaged better with electronic screens than with blackboards, and she made sure her teachers had iPads in the classroom. Then, she organised “Appy Hour” sessions to discuss the most useful teaching apps.

Lillian Bittman, former chairwoman of the Newtown Board of Education, helped choose Hochsprung for the position. She recalled an eager applicant, filled with ideas and focused on “making sure we were turning out critical thinkers, making sure the children weren’t just turning out rote learning”.

Hochsprung and her husband had planned to retire someday to the Adirondacks, where they owned a home, a former neighbour, Bill LaCroix, said. If Hochsprung was a relatively new face in the school, Sherlach was a fixture, a reliable ally for generations of children in need of counsel.

“When somebody had a personal tragedy in their lives that affected their children, then Mary would be a part of trying to help them come up with a solution for that child,” said Bittman, whose three children graduated from Sandy Hook Elementary.

 
 
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