Betsy Kaplan championed arts programs and a broad curriculum during her 16-year run on the Miami-Dade County School Board with such passion that she was called “mother of public arts education.”
She retired at age 77 from a school board and public school system that she helped forever change, but up until her 90th year, she still participated in the community. She served on numerous boards, including Actors’ Playhouse and GableStage in Coral Gables; Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network/Safe Schools; WLRN; Miami Children’s Foundation; and Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs.
“As an advocate and volunteer, she never stopped,” said Michael Spring, the county’s cultural affairs director. “She’s been an extraordinary force for the arts.”
Kaplan lost her battle to lung and brain cancer at 90 on Monday. But as the honors came her way over the years, and community arts programs she helped champion flourished or ran their course, something she told the Miami Herald at the close of the 33-year-old Sunday Afternoons of Music Series in 2014 resonates.
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Betsy was absolutely passionate about the importance arts played in children’s lives.
Michael Spring, Cultural Affairs’ department director.
“I think it’s great to quit while you’re on top, especially in the arts,” Kaplan said at the Pinecrest group’s final concert.
The Bridgeton, New Jersey-born Kaplan, who moved to Miami in 1934, was the top.
“Betsy Kaplan was a little lady with a big heart and big ambition. She knew what she wanted to do, she set forth to do it, and she made a difference for mankind,” said Barbara Stein, executive producing director of Actors’ Playhouse. “She was the champion of cultural programming for schoolchildren as a school board member, and she was a great supporter of Actors’ Playhouse as a member of our board of directors. Betsy’s positive influence on our community will be her great legacy. She was an inspiration for us all.”
Added Spring: “She’s one of my heroes. She was an arts advocate before it was fashionable in the tough years when people were not talking about the arts being an important part of children’s education. She’s one of those really true visionaries who understood that kids do better in school, are better at creative problem-solving, they excel at teamwork, whether they play in a band or are … painting or making a sculpture. Betsy got that from the earliest day.”
For Kaplan, that day came in 1988 when, at 61, she defeated several challengers for the school board seat vacated by Paul Cejas. She ran on her background as a legislative chair for the Florida Parent Teacher Association and chairwoman of Citizens Coalition for Public Schools.
Betsy had been a friend of mine for 46 years, and I had the highest respect for her. Betsy’s positive influence on our community will be her great legacy. I will remember Betsy with love and appreciation.
Barbara Stein, executive producing director of Actors’ Playhouse.
After graduating from Miami Edison Senior High and Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, with a bachelor’s in speech and theater arts, Kaplan worked as a fourth-grade teacher at Miami Shores Elementary. She taught English as a second language at Miami-Dade Community College’s South Campus (now Miami Dade College). She was instrumental in the development of arts education programs at schools such as New World School of the Arts, and the Design and Architecture High School. In 1987, she received Wesleyan’s Distinguished Achievement Award. In 2013, the Jewish Museum of Florida awarded her the Breaking the Glass Ceiling Award, giving her the moniker, “mother of public arts education.”
“I can be a full-time school board member,” Kaplan said in 1988. “I am not a politician. My goal is to serve.”
Kaplan won the first of her four terms. She quickly earned respect. “Despite her grandmotherly manner, Kaplan was an undeniable force on issues of curriculum and parental involvement,” the Herald wrote when she announced her retirement from the school board in 2004.
“She was always concerned and active in her community,” said former County Manager Merrett Stierheim, who worked alongside Kaplan when he was superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools from 2001 to 2004.
She was very focused and caring about children and the school system. She always supported …the cultural renaissance that happened in this community over a period of many years.
Merrett Stierheim, former Miami-Dade County manager.
“She was very focused and caring about children and the school system,” he said. “She always supported … the cultural renaissance that happened in this community over a period of many years.”
Fellow school board colleague and friend Janet McAliley called Kaplan “a great arts leader and arts education leader for children. She was a forerunner of our times in Miami, now, where art is such a primary subject we’re dealing with all the time.’’
Today, Spring says, arts education through programs like the Cultural Passport, which exposes Miami-Dade students to cultural experiences during the K-12 years, and Artist in Residence, which pairs students with professionals, exist as a result of Kaplan’s efforts.
When budget cuts in 2009 threatened to upend all the work that had been accomplished, Kaplan wrote a letter to the Herald’s editorial board. “Shortchanging the arts is shortchanging students. If funding is low, cut across the board rather than further decimate the arts.”
Betsy served the Miami Children’s Chorus as a board member, ardent supporter and friend of our work. … She was a passionate defender of school arts programs and fought hard and consistently to ensure their continuation. May her legacy and vision remain present in our thoughts.
Timothy A. Sharp, Miami Children’s Chorus music director.
Said David Lawrence Jr., a former Herald publisher and chairman of The Children’s Movement of Florida: “Betsy has been a treasure to me and to Miami. She loved the arts. She loved public education. She loved this community — and her love and warmth always showed.”
Kaplan is survived by children Bruce, Joan and James and grandchildren Jacob, Leah and Sam. She was predeceased by her husband, dentist Robert Kaplan. Services will be at 10 a.m. Friday at Temple Israel of Greater Miami, 137 NE 19th St., Miami. Donations can be made to Sunrise Community, Temple Israel or any arts and education organization.