In a class of their own

Julee Brienen and Luke Horton meet two principals whose careers have made a huge impact on their students.

Photos of two men and a woman. Photos of two men and a woman.
Image: Left: Dapto High principal Andrew FitzSimons has retired after 19 years at the school. Right: Principal of Five Islands School Darlene Jones is congratulated by NSW Department of Education Secretary Murat Dizdar for her 35 years in special education.

Of all the superlatives used in relation to retiring Dapto High School principal Andrew FitzSimons – energetic, dedicated, indefatigable, caring, and unique - he describes himself simply as optimistic.

That optimism has served him well across nearly 20 years as principal at Dapto High School and a teaching career that started in 1976.

In a sign of his impact, hundreds of students, staff and members of the school community came together for a celebratory breakfast this week to honour the principal who would always check in on their wellbeing and ask what they had for breakfast.

The students then lined the oval to spell out one of his favourite sayings, ‘Go Dapto’, and then, with his family by his side, Mr FitzSimons was honoured during an emotional assembly – his last as the school’s principal.

Reflecting on his time at the school, Mr FitzSimons listed several highlights, including being awarded the 2020 NSW Sustainable School of the Year, increases in enrolments to the school’s autism unit Wollemi, families moving ‘in-zone’ to enhance their child’s educational opportunities, developing a successful Vocational Education and Training program and attracting and retaining quality staff.

“The principal role is the most exacting and rewarding in the educational sphere with extraordinary opportunities to amplify and reward excellence amongst students and staff,” Mr FitzSimons said.

Karen Brown, Education Director for the Illawarra South Regional Network said Mr FitSimon’s advocacy for students, staff and broader local and educational community was always a top priority.

"Through innovation, creativity and a future-focused approach, he has created opportunities for students to excel across all disciplines,” Ms Brown said.

“Andrew genuinely cares for students and the future world in which they will live. He values and nurtures student voice.”

School captain Charley Kennedy said Mr FitzSimons always ensured the school had a positive vibe.

“The way he stood out the front every morning greeting the students, shaking hands as they came into school, making sure they’ve all had breakfast ready for the day of learning,” Charley said.

“One of the things I’d say is how inclusive he was, he was always open to new ideas to make everyone feel included and would barely ever say no.”

In his farewell address Mr FitzSimons highlighted the important role the school played as a hub for the community.

“If Dapto High School is a good school, then this community is safer, more resilient, more productive, more creative - a better place to live, and the reverse,” Mr FitzSimons said.

Deputy Principal Shane Wood said Mr FitzSimons would be leaving some big shoes to fill.

“The way I see it, he is a limited-edition pair of Michael Jordan-signed Nike Air – that is one of a kind," he said.

Listen to Andrew FitzSimons reflect on his time as principal at Dapto High School in this interview with ABC Illawarra.

Go Dapto on a green background. Go Dapto on a green background.
Image: 'Go Dapto' was one of Andrew FitzSimons' favourite sayings as principal.

Honouring a special career

After 35 years working in special education, Darlene Jones will leave the classroom for the final time today.

The principal of Five Islands School in Lake Macquarie is calling time on her illustrious career, dedicated to students living with disabilities.

Ms Jones has worked at schools across Newcastle, Lake Macquarie and Maitland, and told the Newcastle Herald she wanted to be a teacher from a young age.

“I decided I wanted to be a special educator when I was seven,” she told the paper.

“It was the only direction I wanted to go in and I’ve been lucky enough to be working in my chosen career all these years.”

Ms Jones has been principal at Five Islands School for the past seven years, where 90 per cent of the students have severe intellectual disabilities.

She said she would miss the school.

“It’s bittersweet. I will miss the kids a lot and my tribe,” she told the Herald.

“It’s been an honour coming to school every day. I’ve never felt like I’ve been coming to work.”

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