Jean Sutherland Fund

Est. 2022 by the Estate of Jean Sutherland

Jean Sutherland
Thanks to Jean Sutherland, more young people growing up in New Haven will be able to follow a dream. Photo Courtesy of Eloise Middleton

When Susan Small and Cathy Edinger think back on growing up in New Haven, the talk turns to their late older sister, Jean Sutherland.

When their father died, Jean was in high school; Susan was in middle school and Cathy in grammar school. Their mother was ill and couldn’t care for them and died a few years later. “Jean assumed the matriarch role,” Small said. “We had no other family.”

There was no family car, so Jean walked from their house on Elm Street to Southern Connecticut State University to take education courses and then walked back home. Always there was dinner on the table and love in the house. “Jean was our rock,” Small said.

“She offered us stability and consistency and she gave us a feeling of a family,” Edinger added. “Jean set the standards and expectations for Susan and me. If it weren’t for her, I would not have pursued an education. I didn’t think I was capable, but Jean was there beside me as I earned two degrees.” All three sisters earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Southern.

It was Southern that set Sutherland’s dream in motion – to become a teacher, said Eloise Middleton, Jean’s great friend of 50 years. “Southern gave her the start toward a career where she would influence so many lives,” Middleton said. “Teaching in New Haven was at the center of Jean’s heart.”

Sutherland began a long and award-winning teaching career in the New Haven Public Schools. “She was Teacher of the Year several times,” her sisters noted, a teacher whose students – across decades – wrote and called and spoke of the extraordinary impact she’d had on their lives.

When Sutherland began to think about her estate, she talked with Community Foundation staff about creating the Jean Sutherland Fund to provide scholarships to Southern Connecticut State University for young people in New Haven. “Jean wanted young people growing up in the city to be able to follow a dream like she did,” Edinger said.

Teaching in New Haven was at the center of Jean’s heart.

Eloise Middleton / Longtime friend

Sutherland and her sisters grew up in the New Haven schools. They knew what it meant to live in modest means and “Jean knew about the struggles many of her students faced,” Middleton said.

The friends met when Jean was a teacher and Middleton a social worker and both were part of the Baldwin-King Project. James Comer, the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine's Child Study Center, was beginning his groundbreaking work through the program on “educating the whole child” and encouraging schools to make parents true partners in the learning experience. The project focused first on Martin Luther King and Baldwin Schools, two of the lowest performing schools in the city that went on to become very high performing.

“The schools were in impoverished neighborhoods,” Middleton said. “Jean was very instrumental in supporting the voice of the parents and guiding other teachers and staff to recognize we were all on this team together.”

Sutherland was an inveterate storyteller. When Edinger was very young, Sutherland began making up stories with her with animals as main characters. Nearly every day throughout their lives, Jean and Cathy wove new tales together, often featuring Proud Puppy and Naughty Kitty, characters that would become part of Jean’s classroom lessons, loved by legions of her students.

“She made learning fun,” said Middleton, whose own children had Jean as a teacher. “Jean encouraged students to tell stories. She would do pantomimes, plays, improvisations…anything that would build their interest.”

For years, Jean was a Fellow of the Yale-New Haven Institute, a partnership between Yale University and the New Haven Public Schools to strengthen teaching and learning. When requests poured in from universities and school systems around the country to show them how they could replicate the program, Jean was one of the teachers who traveled around the country to help establish the program in many other school systems.

But her biggest gift as a teacher, her sisters and friend said, was the way she listened to her students, ensuring they knew they were understood and that she expected them to go very far in life. She led, always, with kindness.