SOMERS POINT — As the calendar comes to a close for 2020, so has the career of one of the district's best loved educators as Doreen Lee, principal of the Dawes Avenue School, retired effective Dec. 31.
Originally, Lee said, she had planned to retire in June of 2020 but with the pandemic she felt it important to help the staff open the school year and set the stage for hybrid and virtual learning. “Now that I got them started, I can leave knowing I did all I could,” Lee said.
She leaves with 32 years of educational experience. Lee began her teaching career in the Ventnor School District where she taught first and second grades. She left to take a position as assistant principal at the Fairfield Middle School and three more at the Moore School. The next stop was Dawes Avenue, where she spent 20 years as the principal.
Lee said she always wanted to be a teacher. “From day one I always said I wanted to be a teaching nun — I went to St. Joseph's Elementary School in East Rutherford and just always admired and looked up to my teachers and the nuns. As years passed, I dropped the nun part but never gave up the teacher part. I just love children and watching them learn and grow. They bring me so much joy!”
Moving from the classroom into administration was a big decision and Lee said her mentor helped her to see it was the right decision. “When I was a teacher, I had a great principal and mentor, Mr. Gussie. He saw the leadership qualities in me and encouraged me to go for my administrative degree. When I interviewed in Somers Point, I was excited to build relationships and establish programs that would develop the whole child. I quickly partnered with AtlantiCare and with their help brought a lot of healthy habits into the school.”
Asked what she enjoyed the most during her tenure at Dawes Avenue, Lee said without hesitation the students. “I loved reading to them and have them read to me. I loved encouraging them to be their best and to never give up. And of course, the staff. This staff is so professional, so caring and so hard working that the decision to leave and retire was agonizing to me. I will miss them all so much but hope through my work with Stockton University I will be around for years to come still working with teachers to bring the best practices to the students.”
Lee will continue to supervise student teachers at Stockton University, as she has for nearly a decade.
Lee admitted that looking back over her years as principal at Dawes Avenue School, the long progression of interim superintendents in the district was hard. She added, “I am glad the district now has Dr. (Michelle) CarneyRay-Yoder as superintendent. ... However, that made the decision to leave that much harder because I do love working with her. She is so compassionate and driven.”
So, what is next for Lee? Well, she said maybe that book she has always wanted to write but never had the time. She plans to return to the building once they are allowed back in with the students so she can volunteer to read to them and then there are some fun travel plans once it is safe to do so again. A strong environmentalist, Lee said she can see herself holding gardening classes for children and perhaps even doing free assemblies to spread the healthy word. Lee has already volunteered to nurture and weed the school garden in the summer.
As principal, Doreen Lee was in the halls, the gym, the library and the cafeteria with her students as much as possible, it was her hands-on way of staying connected to her staff and her students. But now that she is leaving how does she want them to remember her? Lee said, “I hope they remember how much I love them and really cared for them. I hope they remember to that I encouraged them to hydrate, eat healthy, exercise, work hard and to never give up.” She added, “I gave the job as principal my all and had fun doing it. “There was not a costume I wouldn’t put on for the students. I know I gave them a lot — but they gave me so much more. The memories I am taking with me are priceless.”
CarneyRay-Yoder said, “Mrs. Lee has had a tremendous impact on the Somers Point School District, both students and staffulty alike. She has ensured the safety and security of her students through nutrition programs and her Dynamite Dolphins reward system. A perfect example of her love towards her students is her visiting homes throughout the pandemic to reward her students for their academic efforts. She is a truly leader who is very devoted to her students and staffulty.”
Lee ended the year and her career in Somers Point on Dec. 23 with a parade in her honor. Lee got to ride on the Somers Point Volunteer Fire Department truck with Santa Claus, quite the honor indeed. Staff, parents and students lined the streets for her trip through the city.