For Fort Myers Beach Elementary School Principal Larry Wood, Professional Development Resource Teacher Kathy Brindise, and Teacher Cathy (Goodacre-Lee) Smith, saying goodbye to students, parents and each other as they go off for the summer break may be a little more difficult, a little more emotional this year – all three have opted to retire. They will be missed.
In conversations with them last week on the school campus during lunch hour, they each shared what led to the decision to retire, what plans they might have, and how they feel about leaving their lifelong profession and their beloved Beach School.
Larry Wood assumed the position of principal at the school ten years ago, when then-principal Dr. Carl Brunick was called to a special assignment at the Lee County District Office. With already twenty-odd years of school administration under his belt, Wood brought a level of experience and expertise to the job that has helped to bring the school to the top in various ratings this year, most notably the scores on the FSA tests (Florida Standard Assessments testing that replaced FCAT testing this year). But it hasn’t been ‘all business’ as far as Wood is concerned.
“Years ago, when I made the transition from being a high school principal to an elementary school principal, I decided that I was going to have fun every day. I made that commitment, and I do have fun every day. Now,” he adds wryly, “not every minute! But every day, I have fun. Don’t take yourself or anything too seriously.” How could anyone take life too seriously when the principal shows up wearing those crazy cartoon character ties?! Nonetheless, with all the testing and deadlines, it must be difficult to maintain one’s sense of humor while also dealing with all the little emergencies and surprises that can crop up on any given day in school. Not so, says Wood. “In those moments when you’ve got forms to get in, some stress points, you just walk down to a kindergarten or first grade class and then you remember what it’s all about. It’s not about the deadlines and the paperwork; it’s about the kids. And that grounds you.”
Looking back on his experiences, Wood talks about how important the relationships are that have been built between the school and various individuals and groups in the community, and the strong and steady support the school receives as a result. He offers these words of wisdom to his successor:
“Continue to involve and embrace the community and the whole beach as an entity, because that’s what we (living and working here on the beach) are. The parents, the kids, the staff, the newspapers, the businesses – it’s all one entity. Have everyone engaged all year round.” Larry has done this superbly. “I guess that’s what I feel best about. Not just the performance of our kids – you know, the scores are important. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s really involving people at a lot of different levels. Getting others involved with the kids, but getting the kids involved in the community. These experiences can help the success of our children.” Watching some of his former students receive scholarships from the Beach Community Foundation last week filled him with pride. “So many have done so well, and you know, I didn’t teach them anything. But it makes me feel like maybe we had a good impact on some kids’ lives.”
When asked why he picked this year to retire, Wood said with no hesitation, “You know when it’s time. This is the time for me to retire. I feel it. Right now, the school is in the top ten percent in the state, the top scoring elementary school in Lee County. It’s kind of nice to go out on top, and to know the school is going to be just fine because of people like the staff, and people in the community, the parents. It’s in really good shape. It’s running smoothly. I’ve got experienced people everywhere. A new person will come in with new ideas, and it’s all good. There’s no downside to it.”
No doubt, Wood is committed to island life. He serves on the Beach Fire District Board of Commissioners, which he says he really enjoys, and he and his wife Teri (also a Lee School District retiree) are happily ensconced as full-time islanders. “We’re not leaving town. Terri and I love it here. We’re happy here.”
Kathy Brindise has been a part of the Beach Elementary staff for 30 years. Starting out as a kindergarten teacher, then teaching a K/Grade 1 split class for a year, the majority of her time has been spent teaching third-graders. For the past three years, Kathy has held the position of Professional Development Resource Teacher – anticipating the needs of the teachers, guiding professional development, serving as testing coordinator, and pretty much going wherever she might be needed. When it is pointed out that the entire staff seems ready to put on any ‘hat’ that needs wearing in the course of any school day (or late afternoon, or night), Kathy assures us, “It’s really true. I think it’s because of our support system, and because everybody here loves this school. Everyone will do whatever it takes because we want this school to be the best.”
Kathy recalls all the milestones in her personal life that she has shared with her fellow school staff. “I’ve been here for thirty years. I feel like I kind of lived through a lot of my big events in my life with my Beach School family.” Births, graduations, losses… three years ago, one of those life-changing events was a breast cancer diagnosis and the attendant chemotherapy. “I had a great third grade class that year. I think it was good for them to learn empathy and to see that cancer doesn’t mean you’re going to die, that you can come out of it.” She remembers fondly the baskets of “comforting things, like books, blankets and lotions” she found on her desk every morning from her colleagues, and how they were all there for her through it all.
Kathy and her husband are looking forward to this next chapter in their lives. “I’m ready. Every time we’ve had a few weeks off together (her husband teaches Business Law at Cypress Lake High School, and will also retire this year), we’ve realized ‘we can do this’. We love boating, we love to travel. We’ve already planned an Alaskan cruise in August. We’ve both been working since we were teenagers. It’s time.”
Kathy hopes those who follow her path to Beach Elementary “realize that they’re in a very special place. It’s a school like no other. The PTO is phenomenal, and you know, even though we don’t get the funding that bigger schools might get, no classroom teacher or student ever wants for anything. Mr. Wood has always gotten the community involved in the school, and we have always received such tremendous support. Our students are lucky, and our teachers are really lucky.”
Cathy (Goodacre-Lee) Smith came full circle when she began teaching at the Beach School nine years ago, after 19 years in other teaching positions. “I went to school here as a child,” Smith reveals with delight. “We are sitting right now in my second grade room!” she adds. “It’s the best school ever.” When asked to talk more about why her loyalty and love for the Beach School has stayed so strong for a lifetime, Cathy gets misty-eyed. “I think what makes the Beach School special – and there are a lot of things that make it special – it’s a community school, and the community supports it, big time. I love kids, I love teaching, I love what I do and I absolutely love Beach Elementary. Here, it’s like you’ve died and gone to teacher heaven, to teach at the Beach School.”
Cathy has had a tough couple of years personally, and recently lost her mom, Betty Goodacre, an active, engaged beach community member for 60 years. “She was my hero.” But Cathy feels that the important things that have happened in her personal life – some wonderful, some very tough – have been that much more poignant or easier to get through because of the support she has always found among her fellow Beach School staffers. “We’ve been through divorces, deaths, births, marriages, graduations…you name it. They are always there for you. I’m going to miss that. I’m going to miss this place. It brings out the best in people.”
Cathy and her husband have already been thinking about things they’d like to do. “I love this place, and this group has been together for a long time. But it’s time for me to retire. I’m 66 years old; my husband is already retired.” But like Wood and Brindise, Smith says she and her husband have no plans to leave the area. “I grew up here. I’m a beach kid. This is my home.”
Larry Wood, Kathy Brindise and Cathy Smith are special people. They’ve dedicated their lives to giving of themselves for the benefit of the children who have come to school year after year to learn about life and living. The people of Fort Myers Beach are forever grateful. But of course, each of them expresses heartfelt gratitude to the community. Larry thanks everyone “for being such a huge part of my life for the past ten years.” Kathy says thank you “for the continued support, believing in the Beach School, and being there for our needs.” And Cathy sums it up this way. “Thank you. The children at this school have had such opportunities that they never would have had anywhere else because of the support this community gives to us. I hope it continues on,” she says, adding, “Don’t think for a minute it doesn’t make a difference, because it does.”
New Beach School Principal Jeff Dobbins
Dear Fort Myers Beach Students and Parents,
My name is Jeffrey Dobbins and it is my sincere pleasure to be the new Principal of Fort Myers Beach Elementary. Fort Myers Beach Elementary enjoys a rich history of academic and cultural excellence which is a result of the partnership between the school staff, parents and community. Together we will continue to provide a positive educational experience for all of the students who attend our amazing school.
Before being appointed as the new principal of Fort Myers Beach Elementary, my professional career began 33 years ago as an educator at North Fort Myers Academy of the Arts, six years as an educator at Villas Elementary, then a staffing specialist for the ESE department. I then pursued my leadership degree and became the assistant principal of Orangewood Elementary for three years, six years as principal of Sunshine Elementary, six years as principal of Villas Elementary, and one year as a principal on assignment at the district office.
I am looking forward to a wonderful experience as the principal of Fort Myers Beach Elementary, and to quote Dr. Seuss “oh the places we will go”.