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School Pride — Shines in North Fort Myers

Strong community involvement and a rich history make NFM schools special

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | Sep 15, 2021

Crystal Tillman, a mom of a fourth-grade student, has been involved as a parent at Bayshore Elementary School for years. MICHAEL PISTELLA

When it comes to local campuses, North Fort Myers has a rich history of school pride and community involvement.

There are a slew of the schools that have dedicated parking spaces for community members, often time as a result of a school auction to raise money.

“I think that is a beautiful thing. You see that within a lot of schools. They have community member spaces and these are the people that are always involved in the school regardless if their children are not there anymore,” Lee County School Board Chair Debbie Jordan said. “There is so much good going on within. This is a tough time for teachers, staff, administrators and families, but they continue to be the best they can for students.”

Teachers are dedicated to helping their students as many schools reach out if their student has missed numerous days in a row of school.

“It really starts from the administrators,” she said of a strong school pride. “I think it’s more in the elementary schools because parents are more engaged. They want to make sure their children are there.”

The historic portion of J. Colin English Elementary, built in 1928. In 1999, the school was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. MICHAEL PISTELLA

In addition, PTA and “room parents” also add to the overall success of the children.

“There are many parents that would love to be engaged with their children’s schools. Whether working two jobs, or just the inability to be there, we have to make sure we are bringing them in and engaging the community and the parents,” Jordan said. “The whole school is better off when you have that feel of that community school.”

The make-up of the school, as well as the comfort level parents have on the campus, are driving factors for that school pride and community involvement. When there is participation from the students extended family, “it’s a beautiful thing,” she added.

“It benefits the schools, and certainly benefits the child to know parents are there and care about what is taking place and how proud they are when doing something good in school,” Jordan said.

J. Colin English Elementary School

PHOTO BY MICHAEL PISTELLA

J. Colin English Elementary School, which opened in 1926, has a rich history as there have been many grandparents, parents and their children going through the school, creating a sense of pride among its family.

“The school was named after a former school superintendent, James Colin English,” Principal Joe Williams, III, said.

The school, which has a piece of the original building attached to the 1997 newly renovated campus, is a registered national landmark.

“The school is part of the community. I think it is really important to a lot of families in this area,” said Williams.

The school also holds a special piece in Williams. heart as he attended elementary, middle and high school in North Fort Myers, affording him the opportunity of growing up with some of the families that now have kids walking the halls at J. Colin English Elementary School.

Tropic Isles art teacher Robert Hertzog began working at the school in 2006. MICHAEL PISTELLA

“This is my 13th year here, three years as an assistant principal, 10th year as a principal,” Williams said. “I have been a part of the North Fort Myers community for such a long time. Some of the students here I attended school with some of their family members. I know a lot of the families in the schools and relatives of some of the students as well.”

The culture has somewhat changed over the years, as they are now uses the International Baccalaureate program structure.

Williams said they are teaching students about other cultures to expand their minds and help them learn.

“The biggest plus is we are a small school. We are a small community here. We are about 450 students. One of the pluses being a school of this size, you really get to learn (about) the kids and the families. The families are familiar with the staff as well. That is a big plus of our culture that we created,” Williams said.

Due to the size of the school, students across grade levels also know each other as they participate in extracurricular activities after school together. In addition, Williams said there are a lot of family ties within the school, too, as cousins, nieces and nephews attend the school together.

Second-grade teacher Denise Fenicle is in her 37th year at North Fort Myers Academy for the Arts. MICHAEL PISTELLA

Families are involved as much as they can be, as many parents work really long hours. Williams said they also have a good rapport with the business, and church community, as many have partnered with the school.

“We keep plugging along and we keep doing what we can do for the best of our children,” Williams said.

Tropic Isles Elementary School

Tropic Isles Elementary School, built in 1961, draws students from North Fort Myers and Cape Coral and also includes a student body that is generations deep. Principal Rob Mazzoli said it’s a really tight-knit school, as far as the community has been concerned.

When Mazzoli took the helm as principal three years ago he wanted to build relationships with students and staff, as he is very big in team building, having collaboration, support and mutual respect.

Tropic Isles art teacher Robert Hertzog said Mazzoli has made tremendous positive gains at the school since he became the principal. They began building staff relationships first, to provide that sense of empowerment, love and belonging to the school’s family environment.

“He is continually building upon that and continuing to make the school feel better. He is listening to us as a staff and looking at veteran teachers at how can we make it better. A teacher having your voice heard is huge and important as a staff member. Having an administrator with that kind of support and having them listen to you means a lot, which is very helpful. Now we are working that into the students, which is something that is fantastic,” he said.

Mazzoli also is very involved with his students and offers cookouts and ice cream celebrations if they meet their AR goals.

“We love to recognize and celebrate,” Mazzoli said.

Community involvement also is another important factor, with at least one event being put on every month to involve parents. One of those big annual events is the Turkey Trot, which provides a turkey to the winners.

Unfortunately COVID, has changed the way these events are held.

“We did a drive by trunk-or-treat and each grade level had a theme,” Mazzoli said of last year. “There was a contest for the best-dressed grade level. The kids and families were so appreciative.”

The school was also creative in how they used Zoom to engage parent involvement, which resulted in higher participation, especially for those who may not have been able to attend an in-person event.

“We put on an event last December, Cooking with Chef Mazzoli. I was at home cooking pasta marinara sauce. I typed out a recipe and gave it out to all the students. We had over 60 families join us,” he said of the hour-long event. “It was so cool to watch the kids and students with their parents making pasta. We brought in academics with measuring, estimating, step-by-step instructions. That was a lot of fun.”

The fun involvement effort continued in April when Tropic Isles held Camp Read, which had a camp fire theme through Google Classrooms. The event was left open for a week with an access code provided to parents. On a Thursday night, from 6 to 7 p.m., there were live readers who had virtual backgrounds of a tent, or backyard campfire.

“It was so cool. The participation there was over 80 families. We put on some good parental involvement activities because we believe in the community and being a part of the school and supporting us to where we want to go,” Mazzoli said.

Hertzog began working at the school in 2006, first as an art teacher, before moving into the classroom for a few years and then returning to the art room.

“I love being able to see all the kids, the entire school. It’s kind of a contrast when teaching second grade. You get to build strong relationships with a set group of kids. I have the opportunity to build connections with the entire school, an advantage of being the art teacher. I get that with the entire school,” Hertzog said.

He said he is on a six day rotation of seeing students, so on average he has students 28 to 30 times a year for 50 minutes per class. That time helps him build relationships with students and build connections to understand their needs and wants, which helps them feel needed and supported emotionally and academically in the classroom.

“I have one class in and one class out. It utilizes every single moment with kids and I do as much as possible in the time frame we do have,” Hertzog said. “Relationships are very important.”

That also helps, as some of his students do not have a strong relationship at home. Hertzog said he has been a part of a peer mentoring program, where teachers identify students.

“We were able to identify students that needed a peer mentor. I had a student, now in fifth grade, who needed a mentor,” Hertzog said.

Last year he scored a 5, or mastery level, on his Florida Standards Assessment for math.

“We are able to fulfill their needs and wants at Tropic Isles. That makes them want to do better. They want to do better. I still talk to my little buddy and see him all the time,” Hertzog said.

As the art teacher, he loves building relationships with his students, as the art room may be that avenue for relief if they do not feel successful with their academics in their classroom.

Hertzog said the school also practices Operation Knock Knock, where they reach out to students who have 20 or more absentees. He said they want to help out where they can and support those kids at home.

“I am very proud of this place and proud of where it is going,” Hertzog said.

Bayshore Elementary School

Bayshore Elementary School Assistant Principal AJ Hamstra said the culture that exists at the school is pretty awesome, something one feels as soon as they walk through the doors.

“There are a lot of special things that definitely take place. We really want to give the kids the best experience possible a long the way,” he said, adding that they go above and beyond to give them that experience.

The strong culture of the school stems from the staff, due to little turnover. Once a teacher joins the team, they remain.

“Our teachers take a ton of care in our kids. When they are absent, out two or three days in a row, they pick up the phone and call and talk to the parents to touch base to see how the kids are doing and feeling,” Hamstra said. “They really do reach out very well. It creates a great atmosphere here, too. They are watching out and caring for their kids. It’s a common practice after a few days to reach out to see how the student is doing because it is important and it does go a long way.”

To boost the community feel inside of the school even more, a house system is in the works of being implemented. Each of the students, along with staff, will be a part of one of four houses, which were built by their building supervisor.

Hamstra said they started to realize that many kids did not know one another outside of their grade level, so they began to explore ways to increase that community feel.

“When you look at our staff it is easy to become connected to the kids in front of you and the grade level you teach. How much do you know the kids on different grade levels?” he asked. “All the kids and staff will be sorted in a house.”

This will provide an opportunity for all students, kindergarten through fifth grade, to get to know one another, as well as teachers.

“What a great opportunity for kids to get to know more kids better and for staff to get to know staff within the building,” Hamstra said.

With the current COVID situation, children and staff have not yet been sorted into houses. But, once they are sorted, they will remain in that house for the remainder of their Bayshore Elementary School career.

“Kindergarten (students will) be in the same house for all six years. It’s great because now, in time, that fourth or fifth grader can really watch out for first graders and kindergartners because they have that relationship. It will create that greater community feel over time.”

The Bayshore Elementary School staff is looking to have house gatherings at different times throughout the year with such functions as having lunch, or breakfast together.

Parent and community involvement is another strong avenue for the school. Hamstra said once a month they do Bayshore Boasting. The teacher writes a positive note about a student that did a great thing that month to share with their parents.

“I actually make phone calls as well to the parents and read that positive note. I think it’s important that the parents know the positive pieces the kids do every day. They love getting that positive note from me,” said Hamstra of such things as helping another student, or doing great on a test. “It’s behavior, academics, really anything inside that room. The parents thoroughly enjoy hearing the positive message. It helps me build that relationship with parents, as well, which is a great piece. We enjoy making that positive phone calls home. It’s very important to keep that positive culture in school.”

During a normal school year, without the impact of the pandemic, Bayshore Elementary School receives a slew of volunteers. The strong culture of the school attributes to the generations of families that have attended the school ranging from grandparents to their grandchildren.

“We say that kids benefit from when volunteers come in and they get that time. Volunteers can play a very important role for kids and a positive impact. We invite parents in to be a part of that,” Hamstra said.

Crystal Tillman, a mom of a fourth grade student, has been involved as a parent at Bayshore Elementary School for years.

“I would say I am very involved. Obviously with COVID that has put a halt on things. Last year was really tough because I’m used to being there all the time,” she said, as her son, who is now in middle school, attended Bayshore as well.

That involvement is offered through help in the classroom, with events and giving a hand in putting the yearbook together.

“It’s a lot of fun and rewarding,” Tillman said.

She said her kids love having her at school and being involved.

“I get to know so many people,” she said, which in turn helps with others looking out for her kids.

The kiddos also love having her at the school and get excited to see Tillman when she visits the classroom. She will volunteer doing such things as reading with the students and helping them with sight words.

“They make you feel special. I get to work with them. That is fun to see them learn and grow,” Tillman said.

In addition to helping in the classroom, Tillman, who is a photographer, volunteers her talents and takes pictures during events. Those photographs are then compiled in the yearbook, with Tillman helping in designing the events pages.

Although there is not a PTO at Bayshore, when the school needs help they will reach out to Tillman, and others, and they will recruit people to help where needed.

She said she loves Bayshore Elementary School because the enrollment is small.

“It’s kind of like a family there. That is the best way to explain it. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone’s kids know everyone. It’s small and homey and you feel welcome there. That is what I love most about Bayshore,” Tillman said.

North Fort Myers

Academy for the Arts

North Fort Myers Academy for the Arts Principal Andrea Gunns said they are very proud of their mission, which was added to the academy close to 20 years ago. They are a model school, as they are recognized as one of the premier art schools in the state and across the country.

“Our kids do very well here because of the arts,” Gunns said, both separately and integrated art in the daily curriculum. “It’s part of our pride.”

Second-grade teacher Denise Fenicle, one of the school’s long-time teachers, said there is a very strong family culture among both the staff and parents.

“I’ve been parking in this parking lot for 36 years. This is my 37th year,” she said.

The staff culture stems from teamwork and cooperation among staff when planning and implementing instruction, Fenicle said.

“We work together and across grade levels to work together and share ideas,” she said, which includes working on special projects, events and activities that go on at the school. “We are eager to share. We share everything. We collaborate well together.”

Families are encouraged to get involved and are welcome into the North Fort Myers Academy for the Arts through volunteering in the classrooms, joining the PTO or, if not comfortable coming on campus, providing a helping hand from home.

Fenicle said they also support teachers with little gifts and treats to show they are appreciated.

“I found the school on the internet,” Gunns said of searching from her Pennsylvania home. “I don’t think you’ll ever find another school like this. People really care about the kids. Kids are centered first. We work together to make this. When you walk in the door, you can sense it.”

Fenicle said it’s all about developing relationships with the students and their families.

“The first two weeks (of school) I probably had six, or seven students come back and say hello,” she said. “I will get a week where I will get four or five former students coming to visit me.”

With the student population ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade, this, too, adds to the overall culture of the school, as teachers watch their students grow from elementary students into middle school students. Many of the middle school students give back and return as mentors for elementary students and either read to students, or help with assignments.

In addition, Gunns said after eighth-grade students leave the school, they return to volunteer and provide a helping hand. They work the programs as ushers, or selling tickets, or working with teachers to do hair, make-up and costume design for a production.

When students start their kindergarten years at the academy it is rare they leave before graduating eighth grade. That is a total of nine years for students to attend one school, which is a huge benefit as staff gets to know the family, she said.

“We are a big family here. A lot of our teachers and staff have their own kids come here, too,” Gunns said.

The students are also involved in the community, as the steel drummers and chorus go out to the community and perform at various places. The academy also has its annual Nutcracker production, which included elementary students this past year.

Fenicle said with the Nutcracker production going virtual it was professionally edited and every student was highlighted.

“It was amazing,” she said, adding that something that was disappointing for the kids turned into something they will be able to watch and cherish for a long time.

North Fort Myers High School

“Traditions” is a word often used for North Fort Myers High School, as the school just celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2020. The motto of the school is pride, success, tradition and respect, four words that have resonated for all those who have graduated from the school.

“Particularly anytime you have a school that has been around for such a long time you have a lot of traditions and family members that have called the school an alma matter,” Principal Debbie Diggs said. “You have kids that are here. Parents graduating from here. Grandparents graduated from here. Cousins, uncles, long-standing tradition for families.”

The culture of the school continues to strengthen as the focus stems around building relationships. Diggs said a lot of students choose to attend the school because of a specific interest or passion, as they can apply to North Fort Myers High School for the Cambridge AICE program, or the double magnet.

Diggs said they work with every single student — anywhere from 1,800 to 2,000 of them — to find out their interest, strengths and passions.

“There is a professional feel to this school with everyone focused on their passions. It’s all about the kids. That is my favorite part. The joy in the job — in the classrooms, performances and sporting events. (To see them) thrive and excel in something they are very excited about,” she said.

In addition, there is also support from those who have not graduated from the school, such as area businesses. Diggs said the community support piece is such a big factor for all the high schools.

“I want to give a big shout out to all area businesses that have been loyal and dedicated supporters of North. Finances are always a tough thing, particularly with COVID in place,” she said as a lot of fundraisers have not been able to be held. “There have been many businesses, restaurants, private businesses that have either donated funds, donated labor, supplies. Whenever we have a need and reach out to the community, it’s amazing how many people step up.”

Parental support also is big at North. Last year many parents reached out to the school independently sharing what a great job they did and saying that if there is anything they could do to let them know. Diggs said with that outreach they sent on an email asking if parents would be interested in donating funds for their end of the year staff appreciation luncheon.

“Hundreds stepped up,” she said, with amounts ranging from small to large.

That outpouring meant a lot to staff, as they felt parents appreciated what they are doing.

NFMNL