By Sara Jhong
16 years ago, Dr. Sharon Applebaum walked onto campus and found a home here at Great Neck South. After working in the Sewanhaka school district for 18 years as the social studies department head, Dr. Applebaum knew she wanted an administrative position where she could still work with students and teachers. When she heard there was an opening for an assistant principal at South, she reached out to an old friend and colleague, Mr. John Duggan, who had previously worked alongside her in the Sewanhaka district before coming to South to be an assistant principal. Dr. Applebaum asked Mr. Duggan what it was like here: what the kids were like, what the staff was like, what the environment was like. He answered simply, saying that it was the most wonderful place to work. Dr. Applebaum interviewed for the job, and little did they know that in the coming year, the two would work alongside each other again, only this time as co-assistant principals here at Great Neck South.
This summer, nearly 16 years after Dr. Applebaum initially got the job here at South, the South High community will say goodbye to her, as she has announced her retirement. After dedicating herself to public school education for 34 years, Dr. Applebaum announced her decision to retire at the beginning of 2020, before Covid-19 became a worldwide pandemic. Although many will not get to say goodbye to her in person, Dr. Applebaum said she will miss everyone, and when it is safe to do so, she will undoubtedly return to South to say hello to faculty members and students and to see the South High productions and plays she loves. While she said it was her time to retire, Dr. Applebaum reflected fondly on old memories of her first years here at South: her first impressions of the student body, the differences of the Great Neck community compared to that of Sewanhaka, and the things that made her fall in love with working at South.
When Dr. Applebaum first started the job, she was immediately surprised by how the entire student body was so interested in learning and how the entire community loved education. She looked around her at the wonderful programs for students and beautiful campus and knew she would love her job. When asked about her favorite parts of working here at South, she explained how much she loved that the students were so happy to talk to her and how “warm” the community here was. “I think South High is a very warm place, and I know people say we don’t have spirit, but I don’t see it that way at all. I think there is so much spirit in all our students and that people are really connected to each other,” she said. She remarked at how happy everyone was to say hello to her in the mornings, and how every morning when she walked through the doors, she was so happy to do what she loved.
While Dr. Applebaum loved how students were invigorated and passionate, she quickly understood that South has very high expectations of everyone and that many of those high expectations are self-imposed by students onto everybody. Dr. Applebaum remarked at how different South is compared to many other schools, how the idea of giving students freedom and a real voice to be articulate as a student body isn’t the way most schools run but is what makes South “a really special place.” “I wanted to be really good at hearing students when they didn’t like things or they loved things; the way I’ve tried to do my job here is get things done and make people happy,” she said with a smile.
Dr. Applebaum’s years at South have undoubtedly been full of achievements and accolades. She reflected proudly on how she worked with other administrators to bring iPads to South and make them an integral part of how students learn. Though it was not a plan that everybody was necessarily in favor of, Dr. Applebaum worked closely with South’s staff and department heads to put the iPad system in place in a way that people would be comfortable using new technology. “I’m very proud of how we’ve done that. I think through this we’re trying our best to provide an education to kids that makes everyone equal,” she said. Dr. Applebaum and the administration designed South’s transition to technology to be as seamless as possible with various programs, apps, and lessons for the new tool. As she reminisced about the days before iPads when students’ binders would explode and papers would fly everywhere; she said she really wanted to make things easier on the kids. “We wanted to get those heavy backpacks off their backs and give them something that would make life easier,” she said.
She has also dedicated much of her time at South to designing a program to help acclimate new teachers to South’s community. With an intense learning environment and an impressive academic reputation, South is a daunting place for new teachers to come and begin teaching. Dr. Applebaum said she really enjoyed working with new teachers and showing them what South is really all about. Because South is such a unique school, Dr. Applebaum really wanted to give new teachers the tools they needed to be effective at South and help make them feel like a part of our community.
While assistant principal is a challenging position that requires constant communication and organization, Dr. Applebaum also took the time to earn her doctorate while working at South. She defended her dissertation in December of 2019, shortly before she announced her retirement, and expressed how grateful she was that South High students helped her achieve it by taking surveys in their English classes, documenting how they respond to different teaching techniques. A common question Dr. Applebaum has been asked, however, is why she would get her doctorate and then retire a couple months after. The answer, she says with a smile, is that she wanted to. “I felt like I needed something new and exciting in my life, something just for me,” she said. And although her decision to retire came after her decision to pursue a doctorate degree, she is still incredibly proud of the achievement.
She even said that her being a doctor might even come in handy with her post-retirement plans. Along with plans to travel across America and around the world, from Napa to Peru to Israel to Italy, Dr. Applebaum said she would love to supervise student teachers at Hofstra University. And although she has a long list of things she would love to do in her downtime, she said she would love to garden with her husband, learn to play golf, and even learn to play mahjong.
Although Dr. Applebaum held a position with a lot of authority here at South, her job has been much more than what people expect. When she first took the job, the principal at the time gave her the advice to “get to know the people she’s working with, love the students and staff, listen to what people are saying, and approach every problem or concern people bring up to her by saying she will do anything she can to help.” Because South High functions as a result of many different committees from the BCG to PTA, Dr. Applebaum made it a large part of her job to communicate between many different constituents and to be as involved in as many conversations as she could be. She would like to give this same advice to the next assistant principal who walks through South’s halls. Her parting advice for teachers and students is similar: “Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep loving teaching. Keep loving learning. Keep looking for exciting things to do in classrooms, and follow your dreams outside of classrooms. Find the things that bring you joy, and make time for the things that make you happy.”