The staff of Helen Keller Middle School came together on the crisp morning of Nov. 24 to dedicate a newly landscaped outdoor gathering area to their former principal, Susan J. Kaplan.
“In honor of Susan Kaplan’s many years of dedication and service to the Easton Public Schools, this area was designed to bring peace and a sense of togetherness to the HKMS community for years to come,” Assistant Principal Annie Mohr said.
The Easton PTO, spearheaded by Cathy Santangeli and with the help of Candee Landscaping, funded and created the beautification project. “It contains lush plantings and sturdy benches built by Eagle Scout Jackson Hicks,” Mohr said.
Kaplan returned to the campus for the dedication, accompanied by her husband, Ira, a member of the Easton Board of Finance.
She made the decision last spring to retire at the end of the 2020-21 school year and to take time out before embarking on the next chapter in the story of her life. Kaplan is taking what she describes as a “sabbatical” year. “I’m taking a little time for myself,” she said. “The job was fascinating and I adored doing what I did. It was an incredible career, being able to serve Easton.”
Her 22 years as an educator was a second career for Kaplan who began her work life at IBM. She was a financial analyst, security council coordinator, asset operations manager and account administrator from 1982 to 1993. Her business background proved invaluable in her subsequent job as a teacher and administrator. Her work in education involved many responsibilities above and beyond teaching, she said.
Kaplan met Ira in ninth grade math class in Brooklyn N.Y., and they have been a couple ever since. They married in 1985 and lived in Poughkeepsie N.Y. for 11 years before moving to Easton in 1999. Their son, Jason, was in third grade and their daughter, Amy, was in preschool at the time. When a teaching job unexpectedly opened at Samuel Staples Elementary School, Kaplan accepted the position.
The Kaplan children attended Staples, Keller and Joel Barlow High School until they graduated and went off to college. Having school-aged children of her own helped Kaplan understand and relate to the parents’ concerns and perspectives, she said. She formed lasting connections with fellow educators, including Staples Principal Kim Fox Santora.
“Both as a teacher at SSES and a principal at HKMS, Sue had an unshakable passion for her work,” Fox Santora said about her former colleague and friend. “When she taught fifth grade math and science, her unwavering enthusiasm and compassion created a positive learning environment for all students year-after-year. She could wield her marvelous sense of humor in such a way that she could inspire interest and participation from even the most reluctant learner. Students and parents alike adored Sue’s classroom.”
Loved Middle School
Kaplan loved teaching math and science at Staples, but when an opening for assistant principal at Keller came her way she seized the opportunity. Joan Parker was principal at the time. The two had gotten to know each other when Parker was in special education leadership.
Having survived breast cancer herself in 2004, Kaplan empathized with Parker as she underwent a battle with multiple myeloma that she tragically lost in 2010 at age 59. Kaplan supported the school community through the grief and trauma of losing their beloved principal. Kaplan succeeded Parker as principal in 2011 and remained in the position until her retirement in 2021.
In hiring teachers, Kaplan would ask candidates to tell her what a middle school kid is all about. She sought teachers who were interested in the “funny, chaotic and searching mind” of a middle schooler and could describe it in a loving way. If she determined an applicant was more interested in the high school level, she would weed them out.
“The thing I’m the most proud about is the caliber of the people in those classrooms today,” she said. “It’s all about allowing the teachers the freedom to be innovative, take risks and try something new. The administrative side is really wonderful and as difficult as anyone can imagine it being. What I loved was the unanticipated issues that came up.”
Kaplan’s time as principal was anything but uneventful. She emphasized high expectations and standards for both students and staff, and was proud to receive National Blue Ribbon school recognition in Washington, D.C. for Keller in 2011. The Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in neighboring Newtown in 2012 brought major security changes for school districts. The 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida added additional unexpected challenges.
“Covid was just another chapter of the intensity of the position,” she said. Along with the health risks and problems with everyday living, the pandemic also brought “incredible educational silver linings,” she said. “The teachers at Keller rose to the occasion and absolutely brought their work ethic to the table. We had been working toward big systemic change, and then the pandemic hit, and the teachers and schools recreated what it means to teach and learn. They know how much I appreciated them.”
Long before the pandemic and her position as Keller principal, Kaplan had been one of the first teachers to volunteer to have a SmartBoard installed in her classroom to integrate into teaching and learning. The Easton Learning Foundation funded the SmartBoard initiative for teachers. “I wasn’t afraid to try it,” she said.
One of the biggest pandemic challenges was how to use technology to continue to offer students an engaging learning environment. Kaplan credits her passion for technology to her IBM days. “I’m comfortable in that arena,” she said. Embracing innovation helped her lead her staff to successfully navigate the difficult transition to remote and hybrid learning, and then back to in-school instruction.
Fox Santora said there was no principal she admired more than Kaplan. “She truly understood and enjoyed middle school students and their constant state of learning and discovery. We spoke nearly every day throughout her principalship, collaborating on projects big and small. Sue was a generous, creative, patient, and encouraging leader. Her partnership with me and commitment to her students and staff were a gift. We all owe Susan Kaplan a debt of gratitude.”
Since she retired, Kaplan bought a bicycle and has been exploring parts of Connecticut she never had time to visit while she was working. She is often out all day on her bike. Watching the leaves change color was especially delightful.
Sometimes she rides with a buddy, but mostly she rides alone. “I feel like a kid again,” she said. “It’s funny and ironic and feels wonderful.”
She has time to help out as her son, Jason, and his fiancée plan their upcoming wedding. Ira worked from home during the pandemic, affording lots of time to spend together. His employer recently switched to hybrid, and he splits his time between Easton and Stamford.
“I have never been better,” Kaplan said. “I have no stress right now, I’m happy to say. I’m a very lucky person and have been fortunate in so many different ways.”
She’s mum about the next chapter as she savors every moment of her sabbatical year. One thing is certain: It will combine the vast background she gained during her years at IBM and her experience as a teacher and principal in the Easton schools. It will also draw on her ability to make the best of whatever comes her way, professionally or personally.
For now, she spends treasured time with Ira, and with her adult children as she thinks, plans and dreams about her next adventure.