She went by many titles in her short but remarkable life: Daughter. Mother. Wife. Teacher. Principal.
And Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung was in pursuit of another prestigious title when she was gunned down while trying to protect her students at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012 — doctor.
There is little doubt in the mind of anyone who knew the 47-year-old Hochsprung that she would eventually attain her long-standing goal of receiving an Ed. D, or doctorate of education. Indeed this was the same woman who had two children before finishing college, raised them largely by herself and went back to school, mostly at night, to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees to become an elementary school teacher. By age 39, the Naugatuck native had become principal at Bethlehem Elementary School, and she was on pace to become a school district superintendent, hence her pursuit of a doctorate.
On Saturday, Hochsprung achieved her goal, albeit posthumously. Susan Scrimshaw, president of the Sage Colleges in Troy, N.Y., where Hochsprung had finished her first semester a week before her death, presented her husband, George Hochsprung, with a certificate signifying completion of the intensive, 27-month accelerated program.
The school rarely gives out posthumous degrees, but Scrimshaw and the board of trustees voted unanimously to make an exception, said Lori Quigley, professor and Dean of the Esteves School of Education at the Sage Colleges. She referred to Hochsprung as the “star” of her cohort of 14 Ed. D. students.
“I don’t remember every student, so this was unique,” Quigley said. “On that tragic morning, I turned on the news and they said Sandy Hook, and I immediately knew who the principal was. … I remembered that infectious smile.”
The Ed. D program is tough enough to be accepted into — it requires no fewer than 60 graduate credits in studies of education or related fields, and no less than a 3.5 grade point average in graduate coursework. It is even harder to graduate, but Hochsprung was determined.
On Oct. 1, 2012, she posted on her Facebook wall: “Submitted first paper at midnight. Only 26 months of accelerated torture to go. Ed. D, here I come!”
“There is no doubt that my mom was going to graduate with her class,” said her daughter, Cristina Hassinger of Watertown.
The dream was cut short by a lone gunman who shot and killed Hochsprung, five other educators and 20 students in the school, shortly after he killed his mother in the home they shared in Newtown. He shot himself inside the school as police were closing in.
Experts believe the gunman had mental health issues that were either undiagnosed or untreated. The students in Hochsprung’s cohort decided they needed to do something in her honor to help people with mental illness in an attempt to stop senseless tragedies, Quigley said.
In February 2013, the Sage Colleges announced the creation of the Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung Center for Promotion of Mental Health and School Safety.
The program’s vision statement reads: “It is a responsibility shared by all to ensure our schools are places where children and the adults who work with them are safe to learn and grow. Our vision is inspired by the life of Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, the 2012 principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. By honoring her sacrifice, we work to advance her legacy.”
The stated goal of the program is “to explore, develop and share solutions that support the mental health of each child and safe school environments to maximize opportunities for teaching and learning.”
At the end of Saturday’s presentation of diplomas to Ed. D recipients, Scrimshaw made a brief statement about Hochsprung: “As you can see, Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung lives on in the hearts and minds of her cohort and all of us at Sage, and in the center that we’ve created in her honor. We will always do good in her honor.”
That night, Hochsprung’s daughter, Erica Smegielski, posted a video of the presentation on Facebook, along with a message to her mother. “Congrats, Momma — it’s official!”