Educator enjoyed watching children succeed

Dennis Levinson retires as principal in Freehold Borough


Staff Writer

Dennis Levinson has retired as principal of the Freehold Learning Center elementary school, Freehold Borough, ending a long career that saw him come through the ranks of teaching to administration. He especially enjoyed relating to the youngsters who attended the schools he oversaw.Dennis Levinson has retired as principal of the Freehold Learning Center elementary school, Freehold Borough, ending a long career that saw him come through the ranks of teaching to administration. He especially enjoyed relating to the youngsters who attended the schools he oversaw. FREEHOLD – Dressed in a suit accessorized with a colorful Looney Tunes tie and carrying a Cat in the Hat lunch box is how Dennis Levinson started his work day for years.

But after 15 years in the Freehold Borough School District, Levinson, 60, spent his last day as principal of the Freehold Learning Center elementary school on June 29.

During an interview it is easy to see that Levinson spent years doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing. He said the reason he became a teacher was because he did not like school when he was a youngster.

“So many people don’t know what they want to do with their lives,” he said. “I knew by time I was 12 that I wanted to be a teacher. I didn’t like school very much, and I wanted to become a teacher to make things better for kids.”

Teaching is something Levinson has also kept in the family. His wife, Debbie, is a guidance counselor in the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District and his sons, Shawn, 27, and Eric, 24, are both teachers.

In Levinson’s office pictures of his children and his students were still prominently displayed during his final week on the job. A candle from a parent carried the phrase “You are the light of our children’s future.” Other photos showed Levinson in Halloween costumes such as the Cat in the Hat, the Grim Reaper, a knight in shining armor and the Wolfman. This is a man who definitely connects with the younger set.

Drawings from little ones lined the walls of the bright office, along with plants from Levinson’s collection.

Before the end of the school year the staff and students got together to bid farewell to their principal. Gifts included a large framed photo of the entire student body surrounded by the signature of every child, a book with meaningful statements about Levinson from every student, and a large poster board with words kindergartners used to describe Levinson: “funny,” “silly,” “extraordinary,” “cool,” “delightful,” “one-of-a-kind” and “fair.”

Administrative assistants Evelyn Mendoza and Mimi Cruz said Levinson was “genuine,” irreplaceable,” “honorable,” “priceless” and “a friend.”

Although Levinson has made the decision to leave, it was apparent to anyone observing him as he said goodbye to staff members that he will be missed and that he will be leaving a piece of himself in the school.

Levinson said he felt a bit like Hal Linden, who portrayed police officer Barney Miller on the old TV show. He said he understood how Linden, as Miller, must have felt when the police officer stood alone in the police station during the show’s final episode.

Levinson has no immediate plans for the future, but he does plan to pursue running, swimming and helping his wife at home.

“She won’t have to cook or clean or do the shopping, That’s a pretty good deal, don’t you think?” he said.

Levinson spent 21 years teaching every grade from one through eight. He taught for three years in Hyde Park, N.Y., two years at a private school in Manhattan, and three years at a private school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

He spent 12 years teaching in the Franklin Township School District and was a principal for two years.

He accepted the position of principal of Freehold Borough’s Park Avenue School at the request of then-Superintendent of Schools Janet Kalafat. Levinson said Kalafat wanted to split the original K-8 schools, forming an elementary school and an intermediate school in the same location on Park Avenue.

At that time in 1992, Levinson said, everything revolved around the borough’s intermediate school.

“There was nothing special for the elementary school kids,” he said.

Levinson created a separate entry for the Park Avenue elementary pupils and did things that made them feel as if they had their own school – such as a treasure box that sits in the principal’s office and the gift of a birthday pencil for youngsters who were celebrating a birthday. He created a school mascot – a unicorn – and adopted school colors to give the younger children a sense of separateness from the intermediate school students next door.

“Little things really make a difference,” Levinson said.

In 1998 voters passed a referendum to expand the Park Avenue school complex and allow for a more significant separation of the elementary and intermediate schools at that location.

Levinson seems to have a polished and well-used sense of humor and shared several wonderful stories about his teaching days.

One of his funniest stories is his remembrance of a wish that he wrote years ago while he was working in Franklin Township. As a notation on a work paper, Levinson wrote, “I also want a corner office with a window overlooking Park Avenue.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” Levinson said laughing.

When he saw the office he would occupy as principal of the Park Avenue School in Freehold Borough he realized that although many years had passed he had indeed gotten his wish – an office with a window overlooking Park Avenue.

After spending eight years at the Park Avenue School, Levinson was named principal of the Freehold Learning Center in 2007.

He said being a teacher today is much more difficult than it was when he began teaching.

“Politics has taken it over,” he said. “There is no sense of humanity left. I feel bad for the Board of Education because politics must govern everything they do.”

He said the federal and state governments impose certain mandates on school districts without providing financial aid to deliver those programs, which makes teaching a much more difficult job today than it was years ago.

Levinson said his goal as an educator was simple.

“I just wanted to make school a better place for teachers and for kids to be,” he said. “Kids are what it’s all about.”