With her trademark sense of humor, tireless can-do approach and devotion to all students, Susan Lee, Garden City Middle School's assistant principal, is undoubtedly a contributing factor to the school's success.
Her mind runs like a computer and "that's not my job" is not part of the equation. From building safety – she's often in front of the school in a yellow slicker during downpours directing traffic, to ensuring that each child reaches his or her potential she's got it covered.
Lee knew from early on that she wanted to be a teacher. As a middle schooler, she worked with younger students. It's no surprise that she was a member of the National Future Teachers of America Club in high school.
She began her career teaching first grade. Lee then worked as a college professor and a dean of special education while raising her family. Once she decided to teach full-time, she took a position as a sixth grade teacher at the middle school.
That was 18 years ago. She was at the forefront of the advancement of special education coinciding with the implementation of Public Law 94-142, an act that was established to assure that all handicapped children are provided with a free, appropriate public education providing services designed to meet their needs.
"This was a turning point," shared Lee. "An equal playing field was being developed and there was a movement to better understand disabilities and develop appropriate strategies."
At the middle school she pioneered the first inclusion team in 1993. Lee also worked on bringing co-teaching and the current cluster program to the school. Students are not taught by a sole teacher but are taught by a team and a special education teacher is part of the equation. A team consists of three core teachers who teach a group of approximately 100 students.
The benefit of this approach is that teachers work with one another and disciplines are emphasized in each subject. For example, writing skills taught in English are reinforced in social studies.
Students are exposed to a variety of teachers and benefit from their unique but shared perspective. This approach prepares students for higher learning.
"When I arrived, it was ground zero," quipped Lee. "Studies had indicated that students perform better in cross curriculums and benefit from many minds working for the good of one student. It was a wonderful evolution.
"All students have special gifts and when you put children in mini-learning communities, it's powerful to see them share their gifts. Both general and special education students benefit."
A natural born leader, she began to take more of a leadership role in the school and six years ago became assistant principal.
She's most proud of the school's team approach: "If you were a fly on the wall during team meetings, you would realize how the sharing of information and strategies is priceless."
She's an anchor at the middle school.
"She is an incredibly warm and dedicated person," remarked Dr. Peter Osroff, Garden City Middle School's principal. "If my own children were here, I'd want Mrs. Lee to be one of their assistant principals."
Dr . Osroff also shared that he independently asked four colleagues what they think about working with Lee and the sentiments were unanimous: "I just love working with Mrs. Lee."
Her own life experiences as a mother and a young widow at 38 have made her acutely aware of the emotional side of children's lives.
"The middle years present challenges," shared Lee. "Having a social life is the most important thing in the world for them while traditional issues such as bullying have reached a new level. These issues don't stop at the end of the day anymore due to technology.
"Kids are growing up in a more open society than their parents did and some of them have very grown-up worries ... then they have to get through math. That is why we're proactive about addressing issues."
The most telling words about Lee come from her colleagues: "She is incredibly kid-focused…so supportive…and, always there for us and the kids."
Lee raised two daughters in Garden City. She's married and her husband, Victor Lee, is a library media specialist.