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Beach School says goodbye to Principal Dobbins

June 6, 2018
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

For the last few weeks, Principal Jeff Dobbins has been removing one or two items at a time from his office at Fort Myers Beach Elementary.

If he packed up his room all at once, he'd get emotional.

The table next to his desk is piled with notes and cards made by the 108 students enrolled: "Best Principal Ever!", and "We will miss you Mr. Dobbins!" One, signed by a student named Stella, says "retirement only means it is time for a new adventure!"

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Jeff Dobbins' favorite place in the school is the “school of fish” paintings hung in the hallway of one of the classroom buildings. It was a team-building project with the staff, and he says it shows the personality and individuality of all his staff members.

"I feel like I'm going on vacation," Dobbins said. "It hasn't sunk in yet."

Dobbins is retiring after two years at the beach's elementary school. He took over for long-time principal Larry Wood in 2016.

He had hoped he'd be able to stave off retiring this year, but since he's enrolled in the Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP), he was required by the Lee County School District to retire this year.

"My life has consisted of work for 35 years," he said. "One day you wake up and don't have that."

He'll be missed at the beach school. Renee Mulloy, the administrative assistant who's served in her role for 20 years, said his personality filled the office with laughter. He's a prankster, and often would trick her or others around the office.

"We have a good team in here. We laugh a lot," she said. "He's very respectful. Coming to work the last two years has not felt like a chore."

Dobbins said working at the beach school was "unlike any other I've been at." He worked at the district before coming to the beach, but his last school was home to 900 to 1,100 students: nine times the scale of the beach.

"I got to work more closely with the kids to make them life-long learners," he said. "It was a personalized atmosphere. You could focus on all the kids."

Being one of the district's smaller schools, it doesn't get an abundance of funding from the district. But it's able to serve the children enrolled there because of the strong parent and community involvement.

"Since it's an island school, and a small community, they take care of this school," Dobbins said. "If it weren't for the PTO and the community pieces, it would be hard to all we do for the kids."

That was an adjustment for Dobbins to need to look for resources in the community rather than getting them through the district. But organizations like the Fort Myers Beach Community Foundation and the Beach Kids Foundation were always ready to pitch in and help out. The Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) is also an integral part of the school, securing money from sponsors and fundraisers to pay for everything from after school clubs to school supplies. In the past year, the PTO supplemented the school with $21,000, Dobbins said.

With the needs of the students covered, Dobbins' main goal while on the beach was to teach his staff how to use student data in their teaching plan.

"We had the opportunity to look at student data to improve learning outcomes," he said.

Throughout the year, students take assessments to see where they are proficient or need growth for Florida standards. Dobbins taught his teachers to look at assessments to see what areas students needed more growth.

"We still need to focus on different instruction for all learners, whether you're challenged or excelling. We need to differentiate," he said.

Fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Martin described Dobbins as very supportive. She's been teaching at the beach school for 10 years, and said he almost made her want to be a principal again.

"He makes it look so easy," she said. "He's a good leader. He really knows his stuff."

The district has already selected Dobbin's replacement, and he's pleased with the pick.

Karen Manzi has been the principal at Orange River Elementary School since 2013, but now she'll be the administrator a little closer to home. She's a Fort Myers Beach resident, and Dobbins said the two of them "go way back."

She did a meet-and-greet with parents and students Wednesday.

"My focus is what's best for the kids, and Karen shares that philosophy," he said. "The administration transition will be minimal. She'll be a great addition."

He's planning to help her get set up at the beach school and meet the community members who partner with the school. Then, he'll be on his way to officially retired.

"I'm going to watch the grass grow. I'm going to actually go to the beach and be a tourist," he said.

Dobbins has some plans cooking about what to do next, but said his other retired friends have given him advice he plans to take: spend the first six months enjoying the freedom, and then figure out what else he wants.

"It's like that kid's book, 'What Do You Do with a Chance?'" he said. "Now I get to explore."



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