By Camila Costa
Melissa Kaplan, Hamden resident and English professor at Quinnipiac University, contemplated putting her two children in private school after being told the school district was not good enough.
“I kind of second guessed myself and said ‘What are you doing?’ The whole point is not to run away, but to make the schools stronger themselves and to not participate in that problem, but actually do something about it,” said Kaplan.
Twelve years later, she is making changes to fix those problems and running as a democratic candidate for a four year term as an elected official in the Board of Education (BOE) in the upcoming elections, happening on Nov. 7.
Alongside making changes in the Hamden school district, she is changing the lives of many students at Quinnipiac University.
About three years ago, Kaplan became the Associate Director of the Honors Program at Quinnipiac. Now she is the Interim Director of the program.
Since her move to the town, Kaplan has been actively involved in her children’s education as well as the greater Hamden school district.
Kaplan was sworn in on the BOE in September to fill in a seat that was recently vacated due to an unexpected resignation of another BOE member. She applied for the position with this letter of intent.
Kaplan has always been political; she believes that teaching itself is political, and when it comes to the upcoming elections in Hamden, she believes anything is possible.
“I think one of the things we’ve learned from this past election is that there are no guarantees,” she said. “Hamden is a traditionally blue town and out of the nine districts, eight have traditionally been democratic, but it’s not to say that we don’t have a tough race ahead of us.”
Although the elections are approaching soon, Kaplan has been actively involved with her political career outside of the race.
She recently took her ‘intersexual feminism ideology’ and her activist actions outside of the classroom in various ways.
She was involved with the BOE before running for the position, as well as being apart of other groups such as the Hamden Parent Supporting Education Excellence (SEE) and The Connecticut Parent-Teacher Association (PTA).
One of her duties, due to the current political situation, was ensuring the safety of transgender and non-binary students in the Hamden school district.
“You can’t cherry pick your issues,” said Kaplan. “If you are going to stand there and fight against sexism, that is intersexual, and so it’s also fighting homophobia, racism, classism and all the various classes of ‘isms’ that exist. So for me, advocacy was really very important.”
Kaplan has only been apart of the BOE for less than two months, however, she is very excited about it and looks forward to working on fixing issues within the community.
“[We are] Getting different initiatives passed and dealing with issues of diversity and inequality in our school system and also focusing right now on the state budget and funding and making sure that our students’ needs are taken care of,” she said.
Kaplan has had a voice in the Hamden community as well as within the Quinnipiac community, so she fights for those who do not but need their voices to be heard.
Although the BOE deals with different topics, one of Hamden’s biggest issues of the moment is the financial situation.
“We have a bunch of different committees, some of them deal with curriculum and policy. Others deal with finance, and that’s one I had a lot to learn about,” said Kaplan. “I think that’s also the most important one because we are dealing with a lot of budget cuts and so we need to find a way to make the most out of the little that we’re given.”
Jody Ian Goeler, the Hamden Superintendent of Schools, proposed this budget for the 2017-2018 school year.
Other issues include special needs education and sexism within the school district.
“I think there needs to be initiatives to really provide equity and equal opportunities for students,” she said. “One of my projects also, I’m sure it’ll be met with some resistance, but I’d like to get rid of the sexist dress code.”
Kaplan is the newest member in the BOE and believes she has a lot to learn from her colleagues, who have connections and knowledge and are helping her fight her battles.
“It’s very humbling to be mentored by these people,” said Kaplan.
When it comes to balancing her schedule between the BOE and being a full-time employee at Quinnipiac, she laughs and says it is stressful, however, so far she has been able to manage.
“I think it’s kind of dealing with competing jobs in terms of my time,” she said. “But I think they are also complimentary as well – supporting students in the classroom and advising students, and then supporting students in my school district.”
Although she cannot be in two places at the same time, she makes time for both jobs and for all students she has been involved with, especially her students in the Honors Program at Quinnipiac.
“I absolutely love the students in the Honors Program and it’s a privilege to work with them,” Kaplan said. “As much as students have learned from me, I have learned from them as well.”
Kaplan sees many activist actions coming from her students at the university and she feels proud to think she might have had something to do with their initiative and courage.
“I’m always moved by their acts of activism,” she said. “It’s something as singular as a student coming out in class for the very first time – the courage, the bravery. Or students who create organizations on campus where they feel the need for something where the school isn’t perhaps feeling a need for them so they create that space and that arena for themselves.”
Another thing she loves about her students is their passion for knowledge.
“They are not there for the grade, they’re there to learn and what meaningful learning is something that not only just happens in the classroom, but it transcends,” said Kaplan.
Kaplan is also very passionate about creating a connection between her two jobs, therefore, creating a connection between Quinnipiac students and students from the Hamden school district.
In the past, students from the Honors Program at Quinnipiac have served as mentors for students at Hamden Middle School and Kaplan wants to expand this program.
"I would love to branch it out and have students outside of the Honors Program to mentor in the elementary schools and even the high schools,” said Kaplan.
Kaplan, whether she is working for the BOE or Quinnipiac, wants to maintain the relationship between Hamden schools and Quinnipiac and hopes that more students and faculty take initiative to make that happen.