The Early Years of Beach Elementary: A Community-Built School

484

A Walk through Estero Island History

It is said the character of a community can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable residents. If this is true – and surely, children are a community’s most tender and vulnerable citizens – then Fort Myers Beach has shown a heart of gold and a sterling character in providing education and care for its youngest. It all started more than 80 years ago.

With no formal education available for the scattering of children who resided on the island in 1937, local mothers decided to found a school, and set about making it a reality within one season. The families of Canady, Geddys, Joyner, Kingston, McCleniston, Reese, Santini and Yeomans scraped together the $27 monthly rent (later that year raised to $35) for the Mayhew Page cottage at 2563 Cottage Street, made available by the Page family and named in memory of their recently deceased young son.

The tiny cottage only had room for two dozen first, second and third grade children. Hired to instruct them all was Lois Alexander, a recent graduate of the Florida State College for Women (now Florida State University). The Lee County School Board paid her $80 monthly salary and provided her with a desk. She was charged $12.50 in rent to live in the cottage and earned a bit of extra money by providing janitorial services.

Parents made sure all the kids got to school and back home daily, as there was no school bus. Children brought their lunch and on chilly days, mothers took turns providing hot soup.

Within a year the student body had outgrown the cottage. In 1938 the New Deal government program, the Works Projects Administration (WPA), provided labor while islanders donated materials to build a two-room school at 175 Sterling St. – site of the present Woman’s Club – on land provided by M.R. Pence.

According to Rolfe Schell’s, History of Fort Myers Beach Florida:

“Bingo games were held at Voorhis Red Coconut Trailer Park pavilion to augment monies donated. The county furnished the furniture and the mothers repainted it and bought a piano. Mr. and Mrs. Al Williams gave a Victrola and Mrs. J. Watt Harris supplied records.”

Other funds were raised through community fish fry’s, box lunches and dances. Everyone pitched in, “even the bachelors”.

That year a second teacher, Ardys Klenzing, doubled the teaching staff to two; she taught Grades 4, 5 and 6. Given the distance of this school from where most families lived on the northern two miles of Estero Island, Lee County provided a school bus for the next ten years, which Ms. Klenzing drove.

The young school enjoyed a moment of great pride in 1941, winning First Prize in the Edison Pageant of Lights Parade by carrying plywood and cardboard replicas of Thomas Edison’s inventions. The entire student body was invited to visit the widowed Mina Edison at the Edison Estate after the parade.

In 1943 two more teachers joined the faculty, including Mildred Bassett, who later served as principal from 1955 – 64 (one of 14 principals in the school’s 80-year history).

Behind the original cottage a lunchroom was built. Parents provided swing sets, monkey bars, a maypole and volleyball net. They cleared land to create a baseball lot. Physical Education classes began, and on Fridays the entire school went swimming at the beach.

During World War II the Beach School hosted patriotic plays and civic functions. In the evening, teachers and parents trained in aircraft identification. The school bus, after dropping its local pupils back home after classes, sometimes gave free transport to soldiers and airmen stationed at Buckingham Airfield and Page Field who came to the beach for R&R.

By 1947 the post-war population boom and an influx of seasonal residents required a larger school. Construction began in 1948, and in September 1949 the school moved to its third (and current) location at 2751 Oak Street, boasting 5 teachers and a principal.

The new Beach School was a large cement structure with open courtyards — very different from the previous small cottages. It held not only individual classrooms for each of Grades 1 – 6, but also an office for the principal, a combination workroom/first aid station/library and a large auditorium. A cafeteria was added in 1955. Now students could enjoy a daily hot lunch.

Fundraising efforts by the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) added playground equipment and swing sets. In following years the parents funded window screens, a drinking fountain, covered pavilion and paved sidewalk. Each year the graduating class added a square with each student’s name, and the sidewalk grew in length.

The new location, bordering on the untamed Matanzas Preserve, gave both students and faculty a first-hand education in local wildlife. Opossums, raccoons, snakes and gopher tortoises frequented the property. One day the children learned that a panther had visited. Staff made plaster casts of the gigantic panther paw-prints found underneath the swing set.

The school became a community gathering place where polio serum was distributed for island families in the 1950’s and tetanus shots were administered after Hurricane Donna struck in 1960. Various civic associations and local Boy Scouts held meetings in the school, and for a number of years, adult education classes were offered at night.

Only in 1972 did the school add two kindergarten classes, a role formerly filled by two private facilities on the island.

In more recent years the auditorium – used not only by the school but also for community performances – was converted into a computer lab and media center. Other additions were offices, more classrooms – including a special education classroom – and a doubling in size of the cafeteria (with an added stage). The school was air-conditioned in the 1960’s with island and PTO support, and received up to date student computers, inter-school television broadcasting and Smart boards in every classroom. The school now holds kindergarten through 5th grade classes.

Fond memories 50 years later

In April 1992 the entire surviving cohort from the Beach School Class of 1942 gathered for a 50th anniversary reunion at Lakes Park on Gladiolus Drive. Some were students from the inaugural group that had attended the Mayhew Page school location in 1937. Also on hand was first teacher/principal/janitor, Lois Alexander Congdon – who left the school when she married in 1945 and moved to Fort Myers, remaining a decades-long teacher and community volunteer.

The reunion group was given a homework assignment to list their earliest classmates, describe their fondest recollections of the Beach School and recount how they rode out hurricanes.

Josephine Canady Hughes recalled:

“I always enjoyed May Day at the Beach School. We would fill baskets, which we made ourselves with wildflowers and deliver them to the few existing homes in nearby McPhie Park. [One year] we made a plaster cast mold of the island on a sheet of plywood. Every house and business was carved from a bar of Ivory soap. We won first prize at the fair that year and the Chamber of Commerce in Ft. Myers displayed it in their window.”

Edythe Shawcross Taylor, a former teacher, wrote:

“My fondest recollection of the Beach School was the total commitment of the parents to the good of the students and the community. We teachers had full cooperation and interest at all times.”

How many schools can claim such standing in their community? Perhaps the pride stems from a true grass-roots effort by local residents during the hard-scuffle years of the Great Depression.

As the school website notes:

“Fort Myers Beach is the smallest public elementary school in Lee County and is proud to be a true community school, ranked A by the District and on the Register of Historic Buildings in this area.”

Fortunate indeed are the students, teachers, staff and community to share this history and enjoy such strong bonds.

 

Janet Sailian

 

Many thanks to A.J. Bassett of the Estero Island Historic Society for providing information and photos from the school’s earliest days.