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Principal, school psychologist ran to help

Updated 9:50 pm, Friday, December 14, 2012
  • Dawn Hochsprung, Sandy Hook Elementary School Principal. Danbury Deputy superintendent William Glass received confirmation that Hochsprung was killed in the shooting at her school in Newtown, Conn. on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. MANDATORY CREDIT Newtown Bee photo/Eliza Hallabeck Photo: Contributed Photo, Newtown Bee Photo/Eliza Hallabec / Connecticut Post Contributed

    Dawn Hochsprung, Sandy Hook Elementary School Principal. Danbury Deputy superintendent William Glass received confirmation that Hochsprung was killed in the shooting at her school in Newtown, Conn. on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. MANDATORY CREDIT Newtown Bee photo/Eliza Hallabeck

    Photo: Contributed Photo, Newtown Bee Photo/Eliza Hallabec

 

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NEWTOWN -- Those who knew Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung said she was a perfect fit to lead Sandy Hook Elementary School, where she took the helm in 2010.

It was the veteran educator's goal to lead her own school.

The optimistic, always smiling Hochsprung was the first fatality identified Friday in the catastrophic shooting at the neighborhood school of 525 students in kindergarten through fourth grade.

By one eye-witness account, Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach were in a routine meeting Friday around 9:30 a.m. when they heard gunshots.

They leaped out of their seats and ran out of the room toward the noise, said Diane Day, a therapist who works at the school and was in the meeting, The Wall Street Journal reported on its website.

"They didn't think twice about confronting or seeing what was going on," Day said.

By the time the shooting ended, the principal, school psychologist, four other adults and 20 students were dead; the shooter, also died at the scene.

Sherlach, 56, had been the school psychologist since 1994.

Former school superintendent John Reed, who knew her well, praised her Friday as a person of warmth, caring and intelligence

"If there ever was a person who, by qualifications and personality, was made to work with children, to be a school psychologist, it was Mary,'' Reed said.

Sandy Hook, one of four elementary schools in town, has 29 classroom teachers and 16 specialty teachers and support staff.

Hochsprung was an energetic leader, who exuded love for her school and students, as evident in her frequent Tweets.

"Safety first at Sandy Hook... It's a beautiful day for our annual evacuation drill," Hochsprung wrote in an Oct. 17 tweet.

She was "everything you'd want in an educator," said Danbury Deputy Superintendent William Glass, who hired Hochsprung as an assistant principal for Danbury in 1998.

"I was struck by her intellect and her ability to think through problems and come up with wonderful solutions,'' he said.

Dawn Hochsprung's husband, George Hochsprung, is a Danbury teacher of the gifted who she worked with for her five years at Rogers Park Middle School. The couple had five children in a blended family.

Dawn Hochsprung was a principal who "loved children," said Donna Kowalski, who lives with her husband, Ken, in a neighborhood across the road from Sandy Hook school.

"It's a shame, " Kowalski said. "Her main interest was those children. She was an awesome woman. Very warm, and caring. She talked to you, not at you."

Hochsprung, who was in her 40s, served in schools throughout the area during more than 20 years first as a special education teacher in New Milford and Bridgeport and then an administrator in Danbury for six years.

For five years she was assistant principal of Danbury's Rogers Park Middle School and from 2003-04, as an assistant principal of Danbury High School. She left Danbury to became principal of Bethlehem Elementary School from 2004-07 and then was principal at Mitchell Elementary School in Woodbury until her move to Newtown in 2010.

She had reached her goal -- to have her own school.

Within a year, she won a school grant called Sharing the Dream from the National Association of Elementary School Principals to create global awareness in schools and international learning communities.

This past summer she had started a doctorate program in educational leadership at The Sage Colleges in Troy, N.Y.

"She was a principal you'd want your children to have," said Lori V. Quigley, dean of the Esteves School of Education at Sage. "She was vibrant, full of life, and loved her school community -- she was truly a caring administrator. She had enrolled in the doctoral program because of her desire to expand her school leadership expertise."

James Schlegel, who was in the program with her, described her as a great school leader.

"Literally staring down the barrel of a gun, she goes to the responsibility of protecting her children," he said.

Glass said Hochsprung was the sort of educator who loved working directly with students.

"It was not unusual to see her down on the floor working with the students. She'd work shoulder-to-shoulder on her knees with the kids," Glass said. "She loved to live life. They had a sailboat and would sail down to the Caribbean. They were not just little sails. She knew how to balance her professional life and personal life."

Melody Montgomery, a retired eighth grade history teacher, worked with Hochsprung at Rogers Park and respected her.

"She didn't sit in her office," Montgomery said. "She loved being creative and hands-on. She always had her door open for people and she was always positive. She had a great smile."

Barbara Durniak, of New Fairfield, was secretary for Hochsprung during her five years at Rogers Park.

"Dawn was a fine human being," Durniak said through tears. "She loved kids and kids loved her. It's a hell of a way for her to go. It's overwhelming. She was lovely to look at, lovely to know. She knew her job and did her job well."

Robert Miller and Scott Waldman contributed to this report.