When outgoing Whitehall City School District Superintendent Judyth Dobbert-Meloy wakes up next week on her first day of retirement, she plans to be sitting outside near the beach, alarm turned off and coffee in hand.
After 43 years in education, her plans for retirement do not include much -- yet. One thing is for sure, though: She plans to join a local Habitat for Humanity team in Southport, N.C., to help build a house.
Building is something she knows well.
When Dobbert-Meloy was hired as superintendent in Whitehall more than 13 years ago following her resignation from a Michigan school district, her first goal was to mend fences.
"There was a lot of disarray in terms of the relationship between the administration and the rest of the district," said Dobbert-Meloy from her office last week. "There was very little trust of the administration."
So her first priority was to form a foundation of trust on which to build further growth in the district. It took time and care, but success soon followed, she said.
"People were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt -- even if I was from Michigan," said Dobbert-Meloy, laughing. "If we were going to accomplish the things that we needed to accomplish, we had to be able to work together very closely. It's the collective group that makes things happen."
Bit by bit, she built that trust, fostering an atmosphere in which the educational goals that were so imperative to the district's success were possible.
"That was the seed that got planted," she said. "Then the plant started growing. Now the plants are bearing all kinds of fruit.
"It may sound very simple, but sometimes the simplest things are the hardest."
With a solid foundation of trust, Dobbert-Meloy was able to build on the district's educational structure to meet the needs of its ever-changing population. Over the past 13 years, Whitehall's English Language Learner population exploded, while its turnover rate in schools continued to pose even more challenges.
Facing "academic emergency" status from the state, Dobbert-Meloy knew that some radical changes were crucial.
"We really needed to put programs in place so the minute our kids hit the doors, we could assess where they were and get them in programs they needed to be in to help them."
The plan worked, allowing the district to grow its students enough to earn an "effective" rating on its state report card for the first time.
According to data released by the Ohio Department of Education, teachers were responsible for helping students gain more than a years' worth of growth in the 2011-12 academic year. The measure, called "value-added," rewards districts for helping students grow academically, even if they are not yet reaching state benchmarks.
"That was the frosting on the cake," said Dobbert-Meloy. "That was the cherry on top of the sundae."
She acknowledged that not all district students are where they need to be yet, but they are learning.
"The thing I was most proud of -- our 'effective' status last year was based on the fact that our kids were growing more than a year, and we had done that for two out of three years," she said.
Sometimes that goal seemed unattainable, Dobbert-Meloy said, because many students come to the district so far behind. But receiving an "effective" rating from the state was a validation that teachers and administrators were doing something right, she said.
She is quick to hand over the credit to others.
"It's not this office, it's the people out in the buildings that make things happen," she said. "That's where the kids learn."
Dobbert-Meloy said she also is proud of the district's five new school buildings -- state-of-the-art learning environments that the children of Whitehall deserve, she said.
"Schools are extremely important to students in particular who don't have all the opportunities that other kids might have," she said. "Why shouldn't our kids have great buildings just like school districts around us?"
So for night after night in 2008, Dobbert-Meloy and other members of her administration visited community members in their homes, businesses and at the fire station to sell the idea of "buy two, get three free." It was a deal they just couldn't pass up, she said.
In November 2008, local voters approved a 6.87-mill bond issue by an overwhelming 65 percent to launch the new construction.
"I think the community understood that this would be the next level -- to have the buildings to educate the kids the way they should be educated, and something the community could be proud of."
But it's really what's in the schools that Dobbert-Meloy said is so precious. She tags Whitehall's teachers and staff among the best and applauds the school board for having the insight to pave the way for a better education.
She also credits the city for all of its work to improve life in Whitehall.
"It's everything moving in tandem," she said. "There's just an overall really good feeling about what's going on here. I think the future is very bright for this community."
Dobbert-Meloy said she'll miss the pace and the people the most upon her retirement, but feels confident that Brian Hamler, Whitehall's new superintendent, will continue to move the district forward. She said she will miss the community immensely.
"They have really embraced me as superintendent," said the Detroit native. "Together, we made things happen."