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Sandy Hook Teacher Recalls Better Times at Newtown School

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Long before she ever taught at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connie Sullivan had decided the teachers there were rock stars.

Reading the school's and teachers' websites, it was clear they had an "obvious love for not just the kids, but for education," said Sullivan, who has been a 3rd grade teacher at Sandy Hook for nine years.

It's been reported that the heroism some of the Sandy Hook staff members displayed earlier this month was emblematic of the kind of place it had become. But I didn't want to talk to Sullivan about that tragic day, recollections of which will be painful for a long time to come. Rather, I wanted to hear why the school is so beloved by the community and admired by educators beyond its walls.

"We're on the news for something that happened," Sullivan told me in a telephone interview. "I want people in California or England or wherever—they didn't know about my school before this—the world needs to know it was really a lot more than what happened" on Dec. 14.

Sullivan, who has taught for nearly 20 years in Connecticut, was working in another school district when she and her husband, a school administrator, decided to move to Newtown. They liked the community. And Sullivan grew to admire Sandy Hook so much, even though her children were too young for school at the time, she said it just made sense to apply for a job.

Now, she said, "some of my grade partners are those rock stars" Sullivan had admired from afar. And some of them taught her own children. Her son Jack is in 6th grade now, and daugther Molly is a 4th grader at Sandy Hook.

During Sullivan's early years at Sandy Hook, Principal Donna Pagé encouraged collaboration among staff members. When Pagé retired, Principal Dawn Hochsprung "demanded it," Sullivan said. Pagé is taking over her old post, at least temporarily, when classes resume for Sandy Hook students Jan. 3.

The attitude Hochsprung reinforced is making the school's transition to the Common Core State Standards—something many schools are struggling with—an easier one, Sullivan said.

'Citizen of the World'

The school's use of Responsive Classroom, an approach that focuses on teacher language and modeling expectations, was valued by Sullivan and other teachers, even though it takes time out of the day that could be spent on academics with its so-called "morning meetings." The approach helped build a strong sense of community at Sandy Hook, Sullivan said, and Hochsprung used it to give students another message about being responsible, kind people: "'You're also a citizen of the world'—she used that expression a lot. 'You're responsible for making it a better place.'"

Articles in the Newtown Bee reflect Hochsprung's attempts to make Sandy Hook an even better place. For example, she appealed to the school board earlier this year because a 3rd grader gifted in mathematics wasn't being challenged. The school board turned down her request to convert a part-time employee into a full-time one—at a cost of about $13,000.

At a summer gathering of teachers, Sullivan said, she and her colleagues chatted about different phone and iPad apps they thought would be useful in the classroom. Hochsprung had worked over the last two years to acquire at least one iPad for every teacher, writing grants and helping the school's parent-teacher group raise money to buy some of them. Knowing the apps might be forgotten by the time school began, Hochsprung gathered teachers recently for an "Appy Hour" at which they again shared favorites, this time with the school's media specialist taking notes. By the end of the day the apps were ready for each teacher to download. Sullivan said she's sure there will be more of these sharing sessions. "We will continue it, when things settle down," she said.

And just the day before the shootings, Hochsprung handed out little bags to her entire staff, each holding a handful of Christmas candy and a Sandy Hook flash drive. Bagels and fruit were set up in the library, along with a slew of new nonfiction books for teachers to peruse.

"I'm sure they do this in other schools," Sullivan said, but it was just one more measure of the sense of community at the school. "It's special. It makes it more than 'I just need to come in and teach reading and math.' I love this place. I will stay here for the rest of my career, God willing."

'A Special Place'

Recently on CNN, the parents of Grace McDonnell, one of the 1st graders killed Dec. 14, talked about how much their daughter loved Sandy Hook, too.

"I was telling somebody, she had a stomachache one day and I said to her 'Why don't you stay home with mom?' and she said, 'No way. I have too much fun there and I don't want to miss anything,'" Lynn McDonnell told the network's Anderson Cooper.

McDonnell recalled her daughter, who had recently turned 7, skipping to get to the bus stop, her backpack prepared carefully the night before. "I know she was so happy to get off and get there. She was at a place that she loved."

"The whole community and the school and the teachers, they're all raising your child," said Grace's father, Chris McDonnell. "It's a special place."

Sullivan and her colleagues are slowly putting in place a temporary Sandy Hook, trying to recreate that special place. A neighboring district with a vacant middle school has offered its use for Sandy Hook students returning in early January. They've gotten a lot of help.

"A good friend of mine ... she was chatting with me, mentioning some of my students' names," Sullivan said. She wondered how her friend and fellow teacher knew those names. The answer, her friend said, "'I was in your in classroom today and put up your bulletin boards.'"

"We obviously live in a state, we live in a country, that wants to help," Sullivan said. "If this is what comes out of this, I hope it stays."

Commentary Associate Cathy Cardno and Library Intern Holly Peele contributed to this report.

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