Growing up, Doretta Thomas-Fleet wanted to be a dentist, but her career dreams changed after her grandmother moved into a nursing home.
“I visited my grandmother often, especially when she first moved into a nursing home. I would help take care of her,” said Thomas-Fleet. “My grandmother finally told me I was a better nurse than anybody else there. So, I followed her advice, and she was right.”
Thomas-Fleet has had a fulfilling 32-year career as a registered nurse—22 of which has been spent as a special education school nurse for the DeKalb County School District. Thomas-Fleet, a special education school nurse at Margaret Harris Comprehensive School, was named DeKalb County School District’s (DCSD) 2021–2022 Educational Support Professional I of the Year at the district’s 8th Annual Academy of Educational Excellence Awards last March.
DCSD celebrates the two educational support professionals of the year from each school and allows them to compete at the regional level, which results in seven regional winners. Each regional winner competes for the district’s highest honor, the “Eddy Award” for Educational Excellence. Thomas-Fleet said that being the district’s Educational Support Professional I of the Year is one of her best moments. She is proud to represent Margaret Harris Comprehensive School.
“I always wanted Margaret Harris Comprehensive School to be recognized. At Margaret Harris, we are a school of excellence. I wanted my school to be recognized for the superior work and our students’ high standards every day,” Thomas-Fleet said. “This award could have been awarded to any of my co-workers. I truly did not think it would be me, but I wanted our staff and school to be noticed.”
Thomas-Fleet was also Margaret Harris’s Educational Support Professional I of the Year for the 2020–2021 school year. She started her career with DCSD in 2000 as the only registered nurse for the now-closed Heritage Educational Center. She cared for students ages three to 12 with medical conditions such as seizures, cerebral palsy, chronic lung disease, autism, and depended on a gastrostomy tube for their nutrition. The school grew from 80 students to 112 students with two nursing assistants by 2009.
Heritage eventually combined with Margaret Harris High School to become Margaret Harris Comprehensive School to educate students with special needs from ages three through 21. Thomas-Fleet said being a special education school nurse has impacted her life in many ways, especially through relationships with students, their parents, and caregivers.
Thomas-Fleet recalls a time when she met a 4-year-old student during her first year as a school nurse. The student attended school with his one-on-one nurse the previous year but lost his nursing hours and had to attend school the following year without his nurse.
“The mother told me she was scared and did not see how I could take care of her son and an entire school with children like her own. I begged her to give me a chance, just a chance. She told me that a chance could kill her son; her son had a small chance of getting Cerebral Palsy,” Thomas-Fleet said.
“I have never forgotten this mother’s words to me, but she did give me that chance. I am proud to say that I became a school momma to her son and every child that I serve as a special education school nurse. This mother’s son graduated from Margaret Harris Comprehensive School in 2017 at the age of 21. I cared for him for 17 years.”
Thomas-Fleet said the best part of working at Margaret Harris Comprehensive School is the students. She said she witnesses the love of teaching, devotion to the students, and professionalism daily.
“We all share a love for our students, but they are my babies. I am just honored to be at Margaret Harris and witness who our students will become and the skills they will learn,” Thomas-Fleet said. Margaret Harris Comprehensive School is a wonderful place to work because of the students, the staff, and our united goal of wanting our students to achieve. I am grateful to be involved in this mission.”
Thomas-Fleet said she wants her legacy to be that she gave her best, tried to ease her students’ pain, gave comfort when needed, and cared for her students.
“If my students, their caregivers, and school staff can say the above, my parents raised me right,” she said. “It is my hope and prayer that they all reaped and benefited from my efforts. I want to be a blessing to others and DeKalb County Schools.”