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Braden River Elementary principal supports students and teachers

Joshua Bennett, the principal at Braden River Elementary School, listens as fourth grader Raelynn Wilson explains her assignment.
Joshua Bennett, the principal at Braden River Elementary School, listens as fourth grader Raelynn Wilson explains her assignment.
Photo by Liz Ramos
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It was 10 years ago when Melissa Dowling, then a first-year physical education teacher at William H. Bashaw Elementary School, walked into Principal Joshua Bennett’s office needing help. 

She was tasked with teaching students with emotional and behavioral disabilities in physical education five days per week compared to her other students, who came for PE once per week. 

Dowling was accustomed to teaching students once per week so she was struggling to come up with several lessons in a week that would be engaging. 

For 45 minutes, Bennett worked with Dowling on ways to expand her lessons and he worked with her on ways to work with the group of students she was teaching five days a week. 

Leaving his office, she said she felt prepared and relieved. 

Dowling, now a student support specialist at Braden River Elementary, said that meeting is an example of why Bennett, now the principal at Braden River Elementary, earned the 2023 School District of Manatee County’s Principal of the Year

Annette Codelia, executive director of elementary education; Braden River Elementary School Principal Joshua Bennett; Superintendent Jason Wysong; and School Board of Manatee County member Richard Tatum celebrate Bennett being named the district's Principal of the Year.
Courtesy image

“I knew then that I could rely on him for anything, and it’s been that way my entire career,” Dowling said.

Tammy Peters, a first grade teacher at Braden River Elementary, said besides his support, Bennett takes the time to celebrate student's achievements. She said Bennett discussed strategies with her about way to help a struggling student. 

When the student showed improvement, Peters went straight to Bennett to share the news. Bennett pulled the student aside in the hallway to offer his congratulations.

As an elementary student, Bennett said he struggled in class. He was held back in second grade at Oneco Elementary School in Bradenton because he couldn’t read well. 

Nothing came easy for him, and he had to dedicate several more hours to his schoolwork than the average student. 

He said he keeps those struggles in mind now when he sees his students struggling.

“That has defined both my work ethic and how I see myself because it has built who I am by being determined and persevering,” Bennett said. “It gives a different perspective because I can both be empathetic and understanding but also have the know-how on the educational side on what type of things we can leverage to try to help.”

His elementary experiences inspired Bennett to pursue a career in education, with a focus on special education. Although his certification allowed him to teach kindergarten through 12th grade, he chose to focus on elementary school as he thought it was his calling. 

As a teacher, Bennett worked to help students in special education be included in general education classes rather than being self contained where the students work solely with a teacher. It gave the students an opportunity to be around peers that were socially and behaviorally appropriate while also addressing academics. 

Now in his fifth year as principal at Braden River Elementary, Bennett has enjoyed seeing students progress through the years academically, socially and behaviorally. He cherishes making connections with the community and families, seeing and helping them go through the ups and downs of life. 

Joshua Bennett, the principal of Braden River Elementary School, talks to fourth graders Sophia Whalen, Ava Duff, Abigail Stephen, Gabriella Busenburg and Jeremiah Farrior.
Photo by Liz Ramos

As a principal, Bennett has had to step out of his comfort zone. To motivate students to achieve academic goals or raise money for the school, he promised to participate in various activities. He was turned into an ice cream sundae. He was used as a prop in a BMX stunt in which the rider promised to jump over him while he was standing. He was taped to a wall. 

“I figure if it’s not going to harm me or the kids, it’s worth it as a motivator, whether academically or for a fundraiser,” Bennett said. “I think of life as being about experiences. All of them were a sprinkle of experiences that make up this flavor of a sundae. They all have their unique memories attached to them.”

He won’t forget seeing his son, Corbin, being excited to turn him into a sundae as he sat wearing goggles and a poncho covered in ice cream and toppings. He’ll remember questioning whether the biker was going to be able to successfully jump over him as he stands more than 6 feet tall. He’ll look back at the time he was duct taped to a wall and remember thinking he could be suffocated to death, sweating tremendously and hoping the tape would hold him. 

Throughout his 14 years as a principal, Bennett has been charged with transforming schools. 

When he was principal at Bashaw Elementary, he made the school a STEAM school focused on science, technology, engineering, arts and math, which is the only STEAM school in Manatee County. 

As principal at Braden River Elementary, he’s made the school a School of Innovation focused on project-based learning and a school that offers a dual language program. 

Transforming both schools was about getting all the stakeholders to see the need and the vision for improving the schools. 

Seeing Bashaw Elementary continue its STEAM showcase every year and seeing the success of the Innovation Expo at Braden River Elementary reminds Bennett of the educational opportunities the programs bring to students. 

“When parents come to an academically driven community event and for them to be able to see their kids’ work and their kids be able to explain the work they have done fills my heart,” Bennett said.



Liz Ramos

Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.

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