Slain Connecticut principal remembered as energetic, smiling, passionate

Posted at 9:25 PM, Dec 14, 2012

(CNN) — Principal Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung just entered a Ph.D. program. She led a school district’s strategic planning panel. She won a national school grant. She could be “a tough lady in the right sort of sense,” a friend said.

Among it all, she found time to smile and exuded memorable enthusiasm.

The longtime educator’s career seemed to be peaking when she became principal two years ago of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which has 525 pupils from kindergarten to fourth grade.

On Friday, Hochsprung, 47, was fatally shot inside her school in a massacre that killed five other adults and 20 students. The shooter killed himself; his mother, a teacher at the school, was found dead in a Newtown house, said a law enforcement source with detailed knowledge of the investigation.

Hochsprung was an affable but serious leader, recalled Tom Prunty, a friend whose niece goes to Sandy Hook and was uninjured Friday.

“She was really nice and very fun, but she was also very much a tough lady in the right sort of sense,” Prunty said. “She was the kind of person you’d want to be educating your kids. And the kids loved her.

“Even little kids know when someone cares about them, and that was her,” he said.

Hochsprung majored in special education for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the 1990s, and she rose through the ranks, working in elementary, middle and high schools in Connecticut’s small communities.

The Connecticut Board of Education made Hochsprung principal of Sandy Hook on June 9, 2010.

Hochsprung also volunteered to be co-chairman of a strategic planning commission for the school district, said Scott Clayton, former assistant principal at Newtown High School, who left this year to become a principal in another district.

The commission post is a weighty, important job, said Clayton, who worked with Hochsprung on the panel.

“She was extremely passionate. And she was especially dedicated to and knowledgeable about curriculum,” Clayton said. “This was a deep loss for the community.”

Last summer, Hochsprung was one of 15 educators accepted into the doctorate program at Esteves School of Education at the Sage Colleges in New York, the college said.

She was the first person from Connecticut accepted into the 27-month program, said Dean Lori V. Quigley.

Hochsprung made the biggest impression of the group with her smile and enthusiasm, Quigley said.

Hochsprung was proud to represent her school, Quigley said. “She was truly a caring administrator.”

In 2011, Hochsprung won a school grant called Sharing the Dream from the National Association of Elementary School Principals. The grant creates global awareness in schools and international learning communities.

She proudly posted notes and photos on her Twitter account about her school’s activities.

“Setting up for the Sandy Hook nonfiction book preview for staff … Common Core, here we come!” she wrote on Thursday, her most recent tweet. A photo depicted several children’s books, including “Alligator or Crocodile? How Do You Know?”

Another photo shows a choir of boys and girls dressed in white shirts and black pants or skirts being led by the music teacher. The audience was all students.

“Sandy Hook students enjoy the rehearsal for our 4th grade winter concert – a talented group led by Maryrose Kristopik!” Hochsprung tweeted Wednesday. Kristopik is listed as music teacher on the school’s website.

Hochsprung recently installed a new security system to ensure student safety.

In a letter this fall to parents, Hochsprung said that every visitor would be required to ring the doorbell at the front entrance after the doors locked at 9:30 a.m.

A staff member would use a visual monitoring system to determine entry.

Parents and visitors then had to report directly to the main office and sign in. Parents would also be asked for photo identification if the staff didn’t recognize them.

In a letter addressed to “Members of our Sandy Hook Family,” she asked parents to be patient with the school district’s new system in all elementary schools.

“Please understand that with nearly 700 students and over 1,000 parents representing 500 SHS families, most parents will be asked to show identification,” Hochsprung wrote.

Hochsprung said glitches would be inevitable, and parents might have to wait to be buzzed inside the school because office staff is often busy on the phone, in the copy room or handling student concerns.

“Though they will work diligently to help you into the building as quickly as possible, there may be a short delay until someone can view you on the handset and allow you to come in electronically,” Hochsprung said.

“We continue to encourage and value your presence in our classrooms and are counting on your cooperation with the implementation of this safety initiative,” she wrote.

On her principal’s page of the school website, Hochsprung emphasizes the school’s “rich history of establishing high expectations and sustaining strong academic performance.”

“Our Responsive Classroom approach focuses on the benefits of a climate of kindness and respect where all community members feel accepted, important, and secure,” Hochsprung wrote.

On Friday, the district’s webpage featured a gallery of school photos with the caption “Safe School Climate.”

In 2010, a community newspaper profiled Hochsprung as one of the Newtown School District’s new principals. She entered Sandy Hook Elementary with 12 years of administrative experience, and she had recently been a principal at Regional School District 14 serving the Connecticut communities of Bethlehem and Danbury, the Newtown Bee said.

She had also worked as an assistant principal in the nearby Danbury Public Schools District, the paper said.

Hochsprung, of Woodbury, Connecticut, was raising two daughters and three stepdaughters, and she was excited about becoming Sandy Hook’s new principal, she told the newspaper.

“I don’t think you could find a more positive place to bring students to every day,” Hochsprung told the Newtown Bee.

Hochsprung received a bachelor’s degree in special education from Central Connecticut State University in 1993 and a master’s degree in special education from Southern Connecticut State University in 1997, according to the News-Times of Danbury.